TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- Just before Christmas in 1996 Bill Weisweaver saw a boy clicking away on a department store computer set up for demonstration. He waited until the boy finished a card game and decided to try it.
"I figured if he could do it, I could. But I couldn't even turn it on," said Weisweaver, who gave the boy $1 to power it up for him. "He showed me solitaire, took his buck and left."
It was the start of an ambitious avocation for Weisweaver, 80, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served 29 years during World War II, Korea and Vietnam conflicts. He began reading about the Internet and sought technical help from a computer guru to learn to navigate the Web and bring a whole new world into nursing homes.
Weisweaver put Tampa's nursing homes online, offering residents access to e-mail to stay in touch with family and friends, message boards and discussion groups to correspond with each other and the public and links to hometown newspapers.
" When computers became popular, I never wanted one. I thought, 'I'll never learn that, it's too technical,"' said Weisweaver. "It was ego. I was afraid I'd fail."
After his wife of nearly 60 years died in 1997, Weisweaver found himself alone and lonely. He became a volunteer for the state Long-Term Care Ombudsman Council, making frequent visits to nursing homes.
He found people like himself, lonely and alone with little connection to the outside world, often forgotten by relatives who are too busy or live far away.
His Internet idea took shape. It was a new marriage. He knew the dark side of loneliness, was fascinated with online capabilities and dedicated to helping seniors.
He began installing computers in nursing homes, setting them up, giving online training to administrators and activities directors and coaxing a generation that doesn't understand computers into using them.
So far, four Tampa nursing homes are online. With technical help from webmaster Terri Bakas, Weisweaver even has a Web site: www.elderswithoutwalls.com.
It has been slow going, says the widower whose project has been evolving for about 18 months. When nursing homes didn't have the budget, he bought the equipment. When administrators didn't have staff time available, he persuaded them to squeeze it in.
"When I first heard about it, I thought it was crazy," said 83-year-old Ruth Hunt, who was among the first four residents at Woodbridge Nursing and Rehabilitation to take an interest. "Now I think it's fun."
She gets e-mails from her daughter in Tampa and plans to surprise her son in Salt Lake City with an online greeting.
A staff member sits with residents and messages their replies.
"It's a way for our residents to keep contact with family and friends outside," said Betty Breden, administrator at the 120-bed Woodbridge home where residents range in age from 21 to 103.
"The ones capable of understanding what we're doing are excited about it," added Pat Johnson, activities assistant.
The Tampa family of 78-year-old George Feather sends pictures, including some of his younger days when he spent time fishing. Relatives e-mail him to let him know they'll be stopping by to visit.
Breden's nephew, 9-year-old Sean Kaminski, and his third-grade class at Lombard Elementary School in Lombard, Ill., sent short messages to residents from their computer class.
For residents who are a little shy or intimidated by the technology, there's an item called "topic of the week" that encourages them to share what they remember.
The site invites outsiders to "meet our nursing home residents, find a pen pal, adopt a grandparent, or just say a quick hello to someone."
Steve Rachin, head of the state ombudsman council, says Weisweaver is doing a good job and "really wants to help people."
Bakas, who designs Web sites, had heard about Weisweaver's project, contacted him and volunteered to make his vision a reality.
"As far as I know it's one of a kind," she says of the site. "I consider it to be a work in progress. We keep expanding and improving it."
It is entertainment-based, scripted in large type and easy to navigate.
The public is invited to scan the e-mail directory. Residents who want to participate are listed by name and share information about their hobbies, interests and background.
"The idea is to correspond with each other and the general public. Lonely people can contact other lonely people so they won't be lonely anymore," Bakas says. "And today, so many people are online anyway. It might be something they could bookmark and come back to every couple of weeks."
The Webmaster and the nursing home check incoming messages so that nothing untoward gets through.
Both Weisweaver and Bakas have a dream that one day the project will expand to nursing homes across the country. "We plug and pray," says Weisweaver.
They hope to recruit civic groups, garden clubs and church groups to become involved and recommend members participate.
"There is no excuse to be lonely today," Bakas says. "There are no walls on this Web site. It can cross states and countries and bring the world to them."
End advance for Thursday, Sept. 7
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