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Getting Residents Online: "We Will Get It Done"

January 1, 2001
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How volunteer Bill Weisweaver is cracking the Internet access barrier by Linda Zinn, Managing Editor
Getting residents online:
"We Will Get it done" By Linda Zinn, Managing Editor contact with family, friends and " cyberfriends" can be a real boost for residents here's how one volunteer has made it happen. "One man awake can awaken another, The second can awaken his next door neighbor.Three awake can rouse the town, And turn the whole place upside down. And many awake can raise such a fuss, That it finally awakens the rest of us. One man up with dawn in his eyes, Multiplies."
-Unknown Bill Weisweaver is a man with "dawn in his eyes."

He envisions a time when every resident of a nursing home or assisted living facility who wants it-and even some who don't yet know they want it-will have access to the "outside world" via e-mail and the Internet. Weisweaver, until recently a Florida long-term care ombudsman, was feeling alone three years ago after the loss of his wife and looking for something to do.He found something to do that changed his life: He discovered computers and turned one on for the first time at age 78. Soon afterward, he was talking with a resident in a nursing home who mentioned that her son was going to computer school and wanted to send her e-mail. He thought, "Why shouldn't people in nursing homes have the ability to e-mail their families and friends?" Today he's leading a grassroots campaign to stimulate communication via the Internet-between residents and their families, among residents of long-term care facilities across the country, and between residents and the community at large.

A lofty goal? Maybe, but this U.S. Army veteran of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars is not easily backed down. Weisweaver says, "I don't think there's an obstacle to getting residents online that I haven't already encountered. There's always a way to solve a problem." This energetic volunteer says he's encountered and solved them all:

' "There's no budget for computers."
So he buys the computers himself or, with the help of retiree and fellow volunteer Rod Ashworth, rebuilds them from spare parts he's picked up at flea markets.

' "We don't have the personnel to help with a program like that."
In the facilities where Weisweaver has gotten his program started, he's been able to get one of the residents or the administrator or the activities director or someone excited enough about giving residents an Internet lifeline that they'll help.

'"There's no money to pay for the Internet connection."
No problem, says Weisweaver. He installs the software for a free dial-up program from Juno ( that provides free e-mail access and World Wide Web browsing. With Juno, each resident can have a separate account and password.

'"There's no room for a computer for residents."
Weisweaver overcame this objection at one facility by observing that its business office was closed for lunch for 1-1/2 hours each day and getting permission for the activities director to use it during that time, to help residents with their e-mail. Using Juno, the program was set up so that residents' online activities were kept totally separate from the company's.

Some people contend that nursing home residents are "too far gone mentally" to benefit from having Internet access. Weisweaver disagrees: "Of course there are some residents who can't be reached, but they all deserve a chance for someone to try. I feel that no one can sort out 100% of the 'unreachables,' so if we stop trying to each as many as is humanly possible, we're in a sorry state. Obviously, some residents can't or won't participate in this program, but I do everything I can to arouse the interest of those who can. None of us knows who we can reach until we stick out a hand."

As a state ombudsman, Weisweaver was already acquainted with many administrators in his area, which opened the door for him to share his vision. "Whenever I've been able to convince an administrator to let me try this program for just three months-at no cost to their facility-seeing what it does for the residents has convinced them to continue the program," Weisweaver says. So far nine Tampa-area nursing homes and two assisted living facilities have come on board.
The administrators aren't the only ones he's had to persuade. Mention the Internet and e-mail to the average nursing home resident and you most probably will hear, "I'm too old. I could never do that!" But with some encouragement-and sometimes a little cajoling-people's reluctance can be overcome, he says.

When it's practical, Weisweaver likes to find a resident willing to serve as the "e-mail courier," delivering printouts of incoming e-mail messages or reading them to fellow residents, and helping activities staff with sending their replies. Not only do the other residents benefit, but so does the "courier," in gaining a sense of purpose and the appreciation of his or her neighbors.

Sometimes there isn't a resident capable of helping with e-mailing, and the activities director or administrator fills this role. At one facility, for instance, the activities director does the e-mail sending (of messages residents have dictated to her) and receiving at home, on her own time, and delivers incoming messages the next day. Other activities directors input the e-mail messages at the computer while residents sit and dictate their messages.