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Computer Queen

by: Lori Futcher
The article below was provided courtesy of Life Care Centers of America

"Oh, I'm just exhausted!" 90 year-old Helen Phillips exclaimed when her son, Curtis, came for a visit. "I wrote this letter this morning, and I'm worn out." The younger Phillips looked down at the letter, realizing his mother's entire morning of work had amounted to half a page of writing.

For as long as Curtis Phillips could remember, letter writing had always been an important part of his mother's life. It was the way she kept in touch with family and friends, former Girl Scouts and students.

"When I was a little kid, she was writing to her dad in Virginia, or my dad's mom and brothers in Minnesota," he recalls. "My folks had friends that ended up all over the United States, and she maintained communications with them."

With her faithful letters, Mrs. Phillips kept in touch with friends from as far back as the 1930s and 1940s. One of her regular correspondents was a war vet whom she had met when she and her husband invited him and several other soldiers over for dinner just days before the young men where to be shipped off to World War II.

As a person who cared deeply for others, Mrs. Phillips showed this through regular letters to friends and loved ones.

Yet, as age brought a tremor to her hands, writing became increasingly difficult. Her son did not want to see her forced to give up something she loved so much. Knowing a computer keyboard would be easier for his mother to manipulate than pen and paper, Curtis Phillips decided to suggest a change.

"Well, Ma," he said, "I guess it's time you learned to use a computer."

"Ah, I don't think so," she responded.

"Why not?"

"Well, I'm too old."

"No you're not," the younger Phillips tried his best to be encouraging. "You're just right. You just need an alternative for this writing."

It was then the postman arrived, and Mrs. Phillips went to greet him at the mailbox, returning with a letter from her daughter, Celia.

"Mom, I just had my first computer lesson today," the letter read. "And you probably won't believe this, but my teacher had just come from teaching a 94-year-old lady how to use her computer."

Realizing the timing of this letter had been perfect, Curtis Phillips took advantage of the moment. "Why don't you come over to my house tomorrow morning?" he asked. "We'll have our first lesson on my computer, and you can write a letter to answer this one from Celia."

And so Mrs. Phillips was propelled into the computer age. Within a short time, e-mail became her primary means of communication.

Now 95, and living at Life Care Center of Pueblo, Colorado, Mrs. Phillips' faithfully checks her e-mail first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and several times during the day. Then clicking on the reply button, she responds to family, friends, church members, and even fellow residents.

Mrs. Phillips estimates that she e-mails three or four people a day. "I'm slow at it," she says. "I'm pecking."

Having never typed before, Mrs. Phillips takes a while working her way around the keyboard. Still, she finds the computer more efficient than writing longhand, which was fast becoming too painful to bear.

Mother and son agree that the computer hasn't really changed Mrs. Phillips life. Rather, its allowed her to continue with the same quality of life she would have otherwise left behind.

"It [the computer] has at least been able to help her maintain communications with people," says Curtis Phillips. "She would have lost that. She looks forward to having letters."

"My life has always been very interesting and full," says Mrs. Phillips. "And the computer just adds to that by helping me do things every day I haven't been able to do."

And indeed, her life continues to be interesting and full. In addition to her computer ventures, Mrs. Phillips participates in all of the center's activities, entertains frequent visitors, and serves as the reigning Colorado State Fair Silver Queen.

During the Silver Queen competition, Mrs. Phillips was asked, "Do you surf the web?"

"I don't really have time to do that," she responded. "I'm too busy."

At an age where many might be tempted to sit around and watch time pass, Mrs. Phillips is continuing to live as active a life as ever.

"Her mind's always working," says Executive Director Terrie Stanton-Nance. "She's always thinking about what she can do next, and she doesn't sit around being bored at all. She doesn't have time for that."

Yet, it is not the computer-literacy or active lifestyle that most impresses those who know Mrs. Phillips.

"The computer part is amazing," says Stanton-Nance, "but her will is what's really amazing."

In order for Mrs. Phillips to remain active and involved, there have been many obstacles for her to overcome.

Stanton-Nance remembers when she first met this computer queen. As a new resident at Life Care Center of Pueblo, Mrs. Phillips was suffering from a combination of illnesses in addition to her severe tremor and a recently-broken hip.

"She appeared to be the kind of person that we would have to care for totally," says Stanton-Nance. "Boy, did she prove us wrong!"

During her first six months, Mrs. Phillips was unable to use her computer. Yet her son made sure she stayed in touch by sending out mass e-mails to a list of nearly 80 friends and loved ones. Then, printing out their responses, he brought them to the center where he read each one to her.

With her family's support, Mrs. Phillips not only returned to her computer, but also began walking again something doctors had said she wouldn't be able to do.

"We're her advocates out there," says Curtis Phillips, as he speaks about how he and other family members have been involved in his mother's progress. "And I think that's an important factor to a resident's success and rehabilitation. My friends are starting to come [to Life Care] with their loved ones. I tell them, you need to be here, you need to help. You've got to encourage her, your mom or your loved one, whomever. You help them as much as anyone else can in achieving a better quality of life."

Mrs. Phillips is a vibrant reminder that with the right combination of determination and support, and with a little help from modern technology, quality of life can continue to thrive well into the silver years.


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