At 90, Chandler Murray's mailbox, not counting bills and solicitations, receives only a handful of seasonal letters from a few old friends. "People just don't write letters anymore," says his daughter Heather Bellanca. And by people, she means anyone more than 20 years younger than Murray, who lives by himself in Middlebury, Vt. So in an effort to keep him connected, Bellanca, who lives a couple of hours away in Salem, N.Y., this spring started spending $9.95 a month for a service that sends him letters every week letters family and friends e-mail to a company that prints the correspondence and delivers it, via U.S. Postal Service, to Murray's door.
The company is called Sunnygram, a play on telegram or maybe gramma though grandpas like Murray might appreciate the correspondence as, say, a Father's Day gift. Sunnygram is the newest entrant in a field of products trying to bridge the technical divide between those who e-mail and their loved ones who don't. Early efforts, like the Mail Station and Mail Bug, tried to create computer products simple enough for the elderly to learn to use. The next generation of services has scrapped that paradigm entirely. Instead, companies like Sunnygram, Presto and Celery are turning e-mails into faxs, phone messages or stamped letters media senior citizens already understand so that users can keep in touch on their own terms. "My dad doesn't feel capable of managing e-mail, but I live in front of my computer," says Bellanca. Adds Presto CEO Peter Radsliff: "The adoption of all-electronic means of communication makes it more and more arduous for the technically savvy to revert to analog." That helps explain why the USPS lost $2.8 billion in fiscal year 2008 as a result of a 4.5% drop in pieces of mail sent.
Presto and Celery, which both launched in 2006, deliver e-mail printouts almost in real time because they require subscribers to purchase hardware to handle incoming messages. (In addition to personal updates and interesting articles, caregivers can send reminders about doctors' appointments and family functions.) Celery charges $13.98 a month to send and receive (color printouts of) e-mails as well as Facebook and Twitter updates via a fax machine, which costs $119 if you don't already own one. Presto to which, full disclosure, my husband and I were early adopters, each of us having bought a machine for one of our grandmothers two-plus years ago is basically a color printer that dials into a server to fetch both personal e-mails and subscriptions to free newsletters like Wolfgang Puck's Kitchen. The machine retails for $149, with a $14.95 monthly fee.
Sunnygram goes back to even more basics. "Our users are not technophiles, which is why they are interested in Sunnygram," says co-founder Matt Ahart, "so it seems inconvenient to burden them with having to set up and maintain fax equipment." Along with individualized newsletters, which are basically a compendium of all e-mails and photos sent to a person's account that week, Sunnygram subscribers get a self-addressed stamped envelope. They can hand-write replies and mail them to the company, which scans and e-mails the notes to the right people. Or they can call a toll-free number and leave a message for Sunnygram to transcribe and e-mail. "Everyone can communicate the way they want and still be part of the same conversation," Ahart says.
As it turns out, some people prefer one-sided conversations. I asked my grandmother whether, when she receives a Presto printout, she ever wishes she could write back. "No," she said. "I like hearing from people without any obligation to respond."
It's true; many people seek to simplify their responsibilities as they grow older. That's why these services all have strict spam filters: a message is delivered only if it comes from an e-mail address that has been explicitly preapproved. It's also why the companies say they don't worry about becoming obsolete, even though, eventually, the vast majority of Americans will be tech-savvy. "Many of our current customers were computer users prior to adopting Presto," says Radsliff. "They found that as they aged, they didn't want to hassle with owning a computer anymore."
By choice or chance, what Ahart calls the "unplugged population" has lost some important connections, especially the tradition of sitting around the family album sharing cherished memories. These e-mail services help fill in those gaps. Bellanca, for example, feeds her father's passion for photography by Sunnygramming him several pictures with notes each week. My husband's Gram, who has seven kids, 15 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, complains that she receives so many photos her Presto ink runs out too quickly. Which, we assume, is a problem most grandparents would be happy to have no matter the delivery method.