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The Web Puts the World at Your Fingertips

Wanda Coburn started exploring the Internet in earnest when her late husband was diagnosed with cancer.

Coburn, 56, of Macedonia, did extensive research on his disease and clinical trials. She became so proficient online that her family often turns to her to help find information. “My family calls me the Internet queen,” she said.

Her interest in health issues led her to become one of AARP Ohio’s 100,000 e-activists. From time to time, the state office asks the e-activists to contact their legislators on an issue.

“When we have something really cooking, we can call on them and ask them to please call or e-mail your legislator right now,” said Jane Taylor, AARP Ohio state director.

Coburn decided to weigh in on health care reform. “It was something that hit me at home,” she said.

Through AARP’s Health Action Now website, she told her personal story of losing health insurance. Illness forced her to quit work in 2007, and Coburn couldn’t buy private insurance when COBRA coverage ran out because of preexisting conditions. Uninsured, she had a heart attack in July 2008.

Her story is included in a booklet of health care nightmares experienced by people too young for Medicare.

The booklet, distributed to members of Congress, is part of AARP’s efforts to make sure people under 65 can find adequate and affordable insurance.

That experience led Coburn to check out and the Fat 2 Fit weight-loss section. It offers members encouragement, tips and camaraderie to help them lose weight.

The site hosts an online community where anyone can register to chat with old friends, make new friends and join groups to talk with people who have similar interests.

The AARP site, including AARP Bulletin Today, covers just about every topic: news, videos, travel tips, recipes, games, scam alerts, grandparenting tips, support for caregivers and money-saving tips.

Suzanne Rymer of Akron enjoys Facebook, the social network site where people create their own pages with photos, videos and comments. It has given her a connection to her family in South Carolina that the telephone just can’t provide.

The 65-year-old retired nonprofit executive gets up-to-date information about her three teenage grandchildren by visiting their Facebook pages. It allows Rymer to read about her granddaughter’s sleepovers and enjoy photos of her grandsons’ summer buzzcuts.

“Teenagers don’t call very often,” she said. “I enjoy seeing what they’re doing.”

Rymer created her own Facebook page after a positive experience with a Weight Watchers online community. On Facebook, she reconnected with long-lost friends.

She’s in good company. Facebook reports its fastest-growing demographic is people 35 and older.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that more than 70 percent of boomers go online. Most of them use email and search for health information. A small but growing contingent is signing up for social networks.

“I think they are particularly valuable for people more limited to home,” Rymer said. “One of my friends’ mother had MS and she used a computer a lot. The [online] communities offered her a lot of enrichment and a lot of company.”

AARP offers a social networking 101 primer about how to use Facebook,Twitter and Ning. Whether you'd like to stay in touch with “friends,” blast short messages to "followers," or create a more personal network, you'll find tips on how to get started and make it fun and useful.

Susan Ruiz Patton is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.

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