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Originally published December 3, 2010 at 12:00 PM | Page modified December 4, 2010 at 3:45 PM

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Corrected version

Give a gift of geek for holidays

Forget the fancy dinner, sparkly earrings or new necktie; the in-demand holiday gift for the baby boomer and older crowd is a combination of technology and service, as the younger generation sets up Skype, social networking and iPods for parents and grandparents.

Special to The Seattle Times

Forget the fancy dinner, sparkly earrings or new necktie; the in-demand holiday gift for the baby boomer and older crowd is a combination of technology and service, as the younger generation sets up Skype, social networking and iPods for parents and grandparents.

The uses may be different — video chats to connect with the long-distance grandchildren or music players filled with public radio podcasts rather than Lady Gaga songs — but the desire to use them is there, and setting them up is a gift for the person who has everything.

Older users are flocking to the Web and, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the popularity of social-networking sites among Internet users 50 and older has been increasing rapidly.

Fully 42 percent of Internet users in that age group reported they used Facebook or another social-networking site in May, just about double the number from the previous year.

Ten percent of them used status update services like Twitter and 15 percent of internet users age 65 or older have participated in video calls or chats or teleconferences.

Some of the technology can be intimidating, confusing or time consuming, so what better gift than helping a loved one surf the Internet tidal wave?

Five years ago, Hsiao-Ching Chou helped her mother, then 63, learn how to use her first computer.

"My mother was pretty isolated, and I thought the computer would open up her world," Chou said.

From there it's been a "rocketlike trajectory," said Chou, whose mother now writes a blog in Chinese and Skypes with people around the world. Her mother's latest request is to help her learn to use the special effects available on her digital camera.

"Helping set my mom up with different new technologies means more to her than a new sweater or scarf," said Chou. "She loves to reminisce over the Internet with old college friends or show off the grandchildren. It's the gift of connection"

Leah Ingram, author of "Suddenly Frugal," advises gift givers to go beyond the idea that an older relative is "hard to buy for" or "has everything." Think about what they love to do or what they do every day, then offer a practical gift that helps them enjoy that part of their life.

If they like music, download all their albums or CDs onto a music player. If they listen to the radio on their walks, subscribe to their favorite podcasts and help download them the first few times.

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Take their physical address book and key it into their cellphone, or add some destinations into the car's GPS device. Find five new websites they might enjoy on fitness, flowers, foreign language or other hobbies.

Run a scan on their computer and upgrade their virus protection. Promise to come over once a month to clean all the junk mail out of their inbox.

Service can be the best gift, Ingram said, especially accompanied with a fancy or thoughtful handmade card explaining what you will do for them. "The best presents don't have to come in a box, or even be purchased," she said.

Almost any technology can seem complicated, so gift givers who set up an older relative's social network, camera, laptop or other new gadget should offer to be on call to help with questions.

If that isn't practical because of time, patience or distance, the gift of a locally offered adult-education technology class or Geek Squad gift certificate can help.

Technical service gifts offer another benefit — they don't take up any physical space.

Dan Sterry's mother, Adele Lorraine, lives in an assisted-living facility in Seattle without a lot of spare room to store new things, so setting her up with the Rhapsody music service and finding digital radio stations she likes have been the latest gift requests.

"She was a symphony flautist for 40 years," said Sterry. "So these Internet services let her enjoy the music she loves so much."

He said her digital request lists mean they spend more time together when he comes over to set things up, time they both enjoy.

Presents for the "older generation" doesn't just mean grandparents. Teens and tweens short of cash or ideas on what to buy their parents can offer the same gifts, such as inputting cellphone contacts or loading music onto digital players.

The younger generation is also usually more savvy about the latest cool phone apps, so they can find and download useful, free or low-cost software on their parents smartphones — like a sports application that reports game scores or Shazam to figure out the title of the song playing on the radio.

Kim Ricketts, who sets up author events in Seattle, says her college-age daughter Hannah likes to load her iPhone with diversions her mother might enjoy, like one from the Poetry Foundation, which displays a new poem when you shake your phone.

A gift certificate offering parents an introduction to Facebook, Skype, Hulu or new video games could be appreciated, even if they don't plan to use the services.

"Sometimes it's just fun for our digital native to introduce us to the world she lives in," said Ricketts.

Hallmark may never design a special greeting card celebrating the teenager who introduced her grandfather to the large-print feature on his Kindle digital reader, and offered her cellphone number in case he had other questions, but she'll be appreciated all the same.

Julie Weed is a Seattle freelance writer.

Information in this article, originally published Dec. 3, 2010, was corrected Dec. 4, 2010. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that 15 percent have tried video calling on their cellphones. It has been corrected to state that 15 percent of internet users age 65 or older have participated in video calls or chats or teleconferences.

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