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Digital Inclusion for Seniors Changes Amid Pandemic

While seniors have long been a population on the wrong side of the digital divide, the evolution of tech like video chatting and telehealth makes digital inclusion for older adults more important than ever.

Four senior citizens sitting on a bench.
FlickrCC/Pedro Ribeiro Simões
Older adults have long needed help with technology, and, quite simply, they always will. It’s just an inherent part of aging — new tech is harder to grasp when you don’t grow up with it.

Because of this dynamic, for many years digital inclusion programs have worked extensively with older adults. They have helped them learn new technology, most often with in-person training and classes, frequently held at senior centers, public libraries and local schools. Those efforts, however, became impossible to safely conduct at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, advocates in the space had to get creative.

Agencies that long assisted seniors, such as AARP, began to partner with advocates working on digital inclusion within the same population. This led to innovations like integrating technology help with AARP’s Senior Planet program, which also now offers exercise classes and other activities online, said Amanda Gimble, director of Aging Connected and one of the leaders of that effort. Gimble noted that this increased need for creative digital inclusion with older adults came at a time when the stakes couldn’t have been higher.

“What happened with the pandemic was it affected more than anyone else older adults who had a greater risk,” she said. “They also become more and more isolated. We all went through the quarantine, we all went through staying home because of the pandemic, and we all felt isolated. For those older people who are not connected or did not have access to a device or had a device but did not know how to operate it, the level of social isolation was really extreme.”

There was essentially a scenario where — to borrow a common pandemic phrase — now more than ever seniors needed to be online, yet it was harder to get them online than ever before, with in-person instruction off the table.

Tobey Dichter is the CEO of Generations on Line, with more than 20 years of experience in digital inclusion work with seniors. Dichter’s group offers online tutorials to help those who are connected learn more about how to navigate and stay safe on the Internet. During the pandemic, traffic to those tutorials increased tenfold.

While Dichter had long seen demand from seniors who wanted to learn to use tech better, the pandemic also removed some existing reluctance.

“Since COVID there has been a push from the bottom and more of a demand,” Dichter said. “There has been more of an acquiescence, a willingness from the target population of this work.”

At the same time, there has also been an increase in support and resources. As in all areas of digital inclusion, partnerships have formed faster now that the pandemic has shown the need for Internet in homes. This has led to an erosion of some barriers that have long kept older adults offline, including access to devices and Internet connection affordability. Those both remain a struggle, but experts in the space say there is more support to overcome them than ever before.

A third challenge — digital skills training — remains perhaps the largest issue, and it’s actually become harder with more of life going online. There is now more to learn, more to do and more ways to feel overwhelmed, intimidated, scammed or unsafe. For example, a new learner might be stopped by two-factor authentication that requires entering a code from a text message to check email on a new device. Alternately, a web interface that has three lines signifying a menu is far from intuitive for someone who has never seen it before. These may seem like small things to people who live online, but for an older adult entering a new world, they can be insurmountable.

The key for instructors, Dichter emphasizes, is pinpointing and addressing the moments when this sort of discouragement is most likely to occur, as well as just generally being aware of it. This means deploying human-centered design approaches to skills training, putting the feedback and needs of the end user at the forefront of the work.

As is often the case in digital equity, it is helpful here to partner with others who already have relationships with the target population. For example, a food assistance program that brings lunches to seniors might include slips that have phone numbers one can call for volunteer tech support. This is all important to keep in mind as a landmark $2.75 billion for digital equity makes its way to real people through the federal infrastructure act.

“I think money can be part of the answer,” Dichter said, “but it has to be money with brains and empathy.”

Kami Griffiths is the executive director and co-founder of Community Tech Network (CTN), a group that also works on digital inclusion for older adults. CTN also works with partner groups who then work directly with those who need to learn digital skills. Yet when the pandemic began, demand was so high that some folks in need were still finding and reaching out directly to them.

CTN also had been considering ways to help remotely in this area for some time, and the outbreak of the pandemic pushed them to try some new things. Specifically, Griffiths and the group distributed 10-inch tablets to 625 people in the San Francisco Bay Area. Those tablets came pre-programmed with training on how to connect and use them. Of those who received them, 553 users went on to complete the five-hour basic training program, Griffiths said.

Still, their focus remains on helping other groups already on the ground train to also do digital inclusion.

“I believe that need can only be met by a network of service agencies that are on the ground,” she said, “and those service agencies are going to do the work.”

Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, is another veteran of digital equity work, which means she is also a veteran of digital inclusion programs for seniors. She said that what the country truly needs to help older adults stay fluent in new technologies is a sustained funding source, not just sporadic boosts amid a crisis.

“The reality is that technology keeps changing,” Siefer said. “You and I are going to need someone to help us with technology when we are older, because it won’t be the same technology we used when we were younger. We’ll always need digital literacy training for everyone, including older adults, and those are funding structures we just don’t have in the United States.”
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine