Cathy Parker and Cyrus Bradford

OAKLAND – Three years ago, Duke Johnson, didn’t know a thing about computers.

“I just started learning to turn the computer on and terminology,” said the 65-year-old, retired sheet metal worker.

These days, Johnson spends eight hours a week in an intermediate computer class for seniors at Eastmont Computing Center in the Eastmont Mall . He owns a laptop so he can practice what he and about 25 other seniors are learning.

Eastmont is one of the few computer technology centers in the country that focuses on learners of all ages. And some of its most popular programs are for those who are least likely to be part of the digital age – seniors such as Johnson. The center has been offering senior computing classes for nine years to help boost the economic and social well being of Oakland seniors.

“It’s social. It’s not computers just for the sake of computers. They become family,” said Tony Fleming, director of the center.

While many people face growing isolation as they age, these seniors are different. Like Americans of other age groups, members of the Senior Computing Class at the center are extending and strengthening their relationships through technology.

According to several studies by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, teens use computers and online social networking sites to reinforce pre-existing friendships and to make new friends . And while you probably won’t find these seniors on Facebook or MySpace anytime soon, many of them report making new friends during class and strengthening existing relationships by sharing their projects with friends outside of class.

Sitting at his computer in the back row of gray cubicles, Will August, 75, said he loves the camaraderie of his classmates, who range in age from 50 to 92.

“I’d never been around just all old people before. I’m comfortable here with these people,” August said.

When two of Johnson’s friends recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary, Johnson used the opportunity to teach himself Windows Movie Maker. He scanned over 100 photos and added music to create a movie of their lives together. He borrowed the center’s projector and showed his creation to 200 people at the reception.

“It tripped ‘em out,” Johnson said with a wide smile. “A lot of people came up to me after the reception to ask how I did it. They wanted to get in touch with me so I could make one for them.”

August realized he didn’t really know how to use his home computer when he retired from a career with the U.S. Postal Service.

“At work all we did was work things on the computer,” August said. “I like picture stories. I wanted to learn PowerPoint so I could tell the story of my son’s life.”

August lost his son Raymond to a freeway sniper in 1989. He made a slideshow presentation about Raymond’s life for his family. It was so emotional for them that they only watched it once.

Bettye Boston retired 10 years ago from working at a bank, where she performed a narrow set of tasks on a computer. She bonds with her classmates during breaks when they sometimes walk the mall. She says the class has taught her how to travel using the Web.

“I wanted to learn about Africa. When different events happen, I can jump right in and learn about it,” she said.

Gus Wedemeyer who teaches the class as an offsite program of the Pleasant Valley Adult School, says the class isn’t designed just to keep seniors mentally active.

“My goal is to empower them and turn them into computer geeks,” Wedemeyer said.

Surveying rows of his students focused intently on the computer monitors in front of them, Wedemeyer said these seniors have challenged him to become a better teacher because of their hunger to learn.

“These students have more computer applications in their lives than I would have imagined,” Wedemeyer said.