Home Tech Senior Moments: How an elderly man was denied an internet service

Senior Moments: How an elderly man was denied an internet service


This is the story of an elderly gentleman who suffered a stroke and was then defecated upon from a great height by a well-known internet service provider. It illustrates the helplessness of many old people who absolutely rely on their internet connection and who could have limited abilities to stand up for themselves.

My old colleague John is a month or two short of his 80th birthday. He is a former journalist and has been a keen computer user for over 30 years. He writes witty, informative emails. Since a stroke in 2010 he has gradually lost his speech, despite being quite active in general. As a result, he cannot use the telephone and has had to make even greater use of his email service. For nearly 20 years he had been a customer of AOL and was using their broadband service.

AOL pulls the plug

Seven months ago he noticed what he considered to be unauthorised debits on his bank account. He stopped payment while negotiating. However, AOL cut him off and, what was worse, they withheld the codes necessary for him to sign up with another service.

Only last month, after John’s son had had a protracted correspondence, did AOL release the codes. My friend was forced to pay up in full to AOL, plus collection charges, even though he disputed the amount.

With this agreed, he went ahead and installed a new broadband service from PlusNet. Unfortunately, the flow of emails did not restart, as I had expected, and yesterday I drove the 35 miles out of London to sort out the problem.

As I suspected, John had been apprehensive at the prospect of a new service and a new webmail interface. He had been thinking up all sorts of excuses not to turn on the computer. One of his major worries was that he had lost all his old emails and all his contacts to AOL.

Getting your stuff out of AOL

I was able to reassure him that this was not so. From my past experience, I know that former AOL internet customers can continue to use their webmail indefinitely. This he did not know. It is a common myth, particularly among older people, that you must use the email service of your current internet provider.

In my view, you should never use the email services of your internet service provider, except as a back up. It is invariably better to sign up to a universal, independent service such as Gmail, GMX, iCloud, Hotmail or Yahoo. Then, if you fall out with your company or get a better deal elsewhere, you have no transitional problems.

Within minutes I had accessed John’s old AOL webmail account. I then spent $24.95 on a small utility called ePreserver which does one thing and one thing only: It sucks up emails and contact addresses from AOL (which is otherwise very much a closed shop) and saves them in a file that can be read by other services.

Note that ePreserver does not run on a Mac. But since it is a one-off operation, use a Windows PC to create the text file and then transfer it to your Mac.

New service provider

I then had a look at PlusNet’s webmail and was seriously unimpressed. This is the sort of UI that has had very little TLC and is probably simply a means to an end. I was also unimpressed by the ridiculous email address they had foisted on John. It was something like mustermanj@johnmusterman1234.plus.com. I ask you: would you want an email address like that, especially at 79 years old?

PlusNet is an excellent internet service provider by all accounts. It regularly wins the prizes, but I suspect it would not win any prizes for the email interface.

GMX to the rescue

Fortunately, rescue was at hand. Over the years I have used GMX but not as my main email address. The webmail interface is second to none. GMX is free, responsive and responsible and a delight to use. What’s more, my old friend now has the snappy address john.musterman@gmx.com.

The next step was to import the comma separated text file that I had downloaded from AOL using ePreserver. Absolutely straightforward, and John’s new GMX account is now populated with all his contacts and all his old emails (1,560 of them, no less). I went through this massive inbox and narrowed it down to 15 messages that might need attention. Finally, I sent a round-robin message (using BCC and not CC, as is good netiquette) to all his old contacts to advise them that he had been resurrected and would love to hear from them.

Within minutes the GMX inbox was filling up with good wishes from old friends. John’s face lit up with delight, as you can understand. I cannot imagine the frustration he must have felt over the past seven months. Not only did he have no email, he was unable to make telephone calls.

Window on the world

I now have to hope that John will get back into a routine of checking and dealing with his mail every day. After such a long break his keyboard skills have withered alarmingly. He was once a fast typist, but even a seven-month break has taken its toll. Practice will be therapeutic, I am sure, and I now have a responsibility to offer as much encouragement as I can.

For older people, particularly those who are housebound or who have disabilities, an internet-connected computer provides an essential window on the world. Access to the internet can transform a person’s existence. Contact with old friends, gaining information, access to cheaper deals and offers, not to mention the sheer delight of being in touch: all these things are essential. It is a great pity that it took seven months to untangle John from the clutches of AOL.


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