"It's the only way I get to see pictures of my family," said Espino, 69, a retiree from the Federal Reserve Bank. Her four grandchildren in Texas and Missouri are frequent users of Facebook, the free online networking service where users can post messages and photos for other users they accept as "friends."
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So Espino finds out about them by looking over their cyber-shoulders.
"They hate to take pictures for Grandma, but they love to take pictures for their friends," she said with a chuckle.
Just a few years ago, Espino would have been an anomaly among older Americans, who have generally been slower to take up computers, the Internet and social networking. But they are catching up.
A survey earlier this year by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project found that for the first time, more than half of adults 65 and older are online. One in three of them uses social networking sites such as Facebook, Skype or Twitter.
A visual "phone call"
Many extended families have members scattered across the country or the globe. Grandparents, in particular, find they can shrink that distance through Skype, a free Internet service that turns a computer into a video phone.
"It was great when I wanted to see something special from my grandkids, like my granddaughter dressed up for her prom or seeing a new baby," Espino said of Skype.
Like Espino, Sanny Moore, 79, of St. Louis, checks her Facebook account mainly to keep track of family all over the country. But she doesn't post much about herself.
"I just don't have a real interest in posting my day-to-day activities," she said. "I just don't take the time."
Espino, too, is somewhat baffled by family members who seem to post anything and everything about themselves for the world to see.
"Too much information," she said.
Indeed, many older people fear the loss of their privacy or worse — identity theft. That's one reason many have been reluctant to jump on the social media bandwagon.
"People are worried: Is my security going to be breached?" said Marvin Sands, 71, of Independence, the new social media volunteer for AARP Missouri.
- Don't share personal information, such as bank account numbers or Social Security numbers.
- Don't answer personal questions.
- Don't accept a "friend" request from anyone you don't know.
- Review the privacy options on Facebook and other online services.
AARP Missouri is training about 80 volunteers to use Facebook.
Anita Parran, AARP Missouri spokeswoman, said when the volunteers create their own Facebook pages, it helps build a network that allows AARP to quickly get the word out about activities or issues.
The first barrier for some older folks, Sands said, is wariness of the machine itself. "You have to take the fear out of getting on a computer. They're not going to break it."
Shrinking the world
MaryJo Simmons, 74, of Kansas City, said she uses Facebook to keep up with her children. The semiretired nurse and teacher said she also relies on Facebook to stay connected to people she's met in her travels around the world.
For an aging population, Facebook can also make life's hardest moments a little less heart-wrenching.
For instance, Espino said that a few days before a death in her family, a note was posted to family members that warned of the patient's grave condition.
"That was kind of nice," she said, because it took some of the shock out of the death when it occurred.
Tim Poor is a writer living in Clayton, Mo.
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