By Yuko Takeo
TOKYO (Reuters) - Fifteen years ago, a growing sense of isolation due to old age prompted Kayoko Okawa, then 66, to knock on the door of a local volunteer center and timidly ask if it was possible for someone her age to start an online community for seniors.
The energetic 81-year-old is now president of the "Computer Grandmas Group" and says connecting this way can ease loneliness for Japan's increasing number of seniors who live alone -- and, more importantly, stave off a lonely death, with the bodies often not found for days.
"I like to remember how we used to write letters - including photos, pictures," Okawa said. "It was the personal touches that mattered."
Turned down 15 years ago by many groups with comments like "there's no way a granny like you could do it," Okawa's tentative questions were met by friendly enthusiasm and advice from two young men, who immediately offered to help set up the network and print business cards for her.
Advocating the use of IT technology among the elderly, the Computer Grandmas, who now number over 250 women -- and men -- across Japan, hold twice-monthly classes to teach seniors how to use the internet. They also maintain a listserve which has become a thriving online community.
"I suppose it spread because everyone felt lonely. It's a time of life when everyone, whether male or female, feels a little alone," Okawa said.
"We talk about the 'aging society' and the 'need for psychological support' and such... but the truth lies in everyone being just a bit lonely."
When Okawa first began her quest, personal computers were still quite expensive and could cast upwards of 600,000 yen ($7,800 in current terms), way beyond the cost of pensioners.
She and a group of volunteers made the rounds of companies to ask for donations of used computers. When they visited the Japanese branch of Microsoft, they struck gold.
"We arrived at their storage rooms. It was like entering a room full of treasure," Okawa recalled.
Behind the group's light-hearted approach lies awareness of the grim reality that the number of deaths among seniors living alone has become an increasingly urgent social problem, with their bodies sometimes not discovered for days.
Last year, 4.6 million elderly lived alone across Japan, and the number of those who died at home rose 61 percent between 2003 and 2010, from 1,364 to 2,194, according to the Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health in Tokyo.
A deep-seated Japanese reluctance to interfere in the lives of others, even neighbors, means that some of these people may go through their days without talking to anybody.
Looser family bonds and smaller families also play a role. The 2010 national census showed that the number of single person households had increased once again, accounting for 31 percent of all households in Japan.
Yuki Ishikawa, the 66-year-old director of Tanshinken, a group that advocates to make life easier for those living solo, says a sense of independence and fight is needed by the middle-aged and elderly living alone, at least in the Tokyo area.
"It's about how to support yourself on your own, to not be shamed by a society standardized to a 'two parents, two unmarried children' stereotype," she added.
In this way, the internet plays a key role in both psychological and practical support, particularly in times of emergency such as the March 11 disaster following a massive 9.0 earthquake and tsunami.
With land lines down, people of all ages went online to verify the safety of friends and loved ones via sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
Okawa's group has held "Twitter Salons" for seniors twice since March but admits it's still hard to tell if Twitter works well for the older generation, since it may be too fast a medium that updates too quickly for seniors. The listserve, by contrast, is slow.
Others say that limited internet access remains a hurdle.
"The older generation has been left behind by the internet age. This needs to be changed," said Keiko Higuchi, 79 and director of the Women's Association for Better Aging Society.
But awareness of the internet's usefulness may change this.
According to the ministry of Internal Affairs, while only 39 percent of Japanese above 65 had access to the internet in Japan last year, some 67 percent used some form of online community to keep in touch after the quake.
Now, Okawa says some members of her group log on to their computers first thing in the morning to check what e-mails they had received during the night.
"Even if it's just through your fingertips, being connected to someone else is important," she added.
(Editing by Elaine Lies)