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Pilot Brings Digital Skills Training to South Carolina Seniors

A pilot project led by the South Carolina Department of Aging and Palmetto Care Connections aims to teach seniors the digital skills they need to combat social isolation and access telehealth services.

A senior using a tablet.
A project led by the South Carolina Department on Aging (SCDOA) and Palmetto Care Connections (PCC) is looking to reduce the digital divide among seniors by teaching them necessary skills for the digital age — like how to access digital tools, from emails to telehealth.

The COVID-19 pandemic has starkly underscored this technology gap. As more projects aim to teach young people about digital citizenship, older generations have not received the same attention.

“Social isolation has been around for a long time, but COVID brought it to the forefront,” explained Connie Munn, SCDOA’s agency director.

Funded by the Rural Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), and SCDOA through the CARES Act, the project will grant a total of 100 tablets to seniors across five counties: Allendale, Barnwell, Clarendon, Lower Richland and Williamsburg.

For the seniors to get the maximum value from the tablets, it was also important to offer them 12 months of free broadband service, explained SCDOA’s senior consultant for outreach and partnership building, Kay Hightower.

The collaborative effort involved many different entities but was led by SCDOA and PCC, explained Hightower. PCC’s CTO Matt Hiatt negotiated a deal on 12 months of Internet service from Verizon. Each county also involved different partners in the effort — from area aging agencies to churches.

According to Hightower, training is currently underway in three of the five counties, with about 60 of the 100 seniors having received training.

PCC CEO Kathy Schwarting noted that the training is expected to be completed by the end of September 2021, but the nonprofit organization will provide ongoing support following the completion of training throughout the year of free service.

The training is led by a digital literacy trainer that developed a curriculum for the seniors’ needs, Schwarting explained. A priority of the training is teaching the seniors how to access telehealth. However, the training begins with introductory lessons, like how to use the tablet and set up an email address if they do not already have one.

After the initial instructions, the seniors are taught how to schedule a telehealth appointment with their provider and how something like a “virtual waiting room” works, Schwarting detailed. For those whose providers do not offer telehealth, the user can decide whether they would like to remain with their provider or find another in the area who does offer a virtual option.

Hightower said that the seniors love the training, noting that the two-day training was extended to three days in response to participants’ requests.

The program has been tailored to support seniors’ interests, Schwarting noted, explaining that the curriculum was modified to include information on how to take pictures and send them to family members. Others were interested in learning to use social media platforms like Facebook to communicate.

“We have a basic curriculum, but we’ll also teach them above and beyond that if they are interested,” stated Schwarting.

The pilot differed by county to suit regional needs. For example, Clarendon County had an intergenerational component, involving a transfer of knowledge between students and seniors. In Barnwell County, a folklorist recorded seniors’ stories to help document the seniors’ histories. In Lower Richland County, many participants are caregivers for someone with a disease like Alzheimer’s; the program there aims to teach seniors how they can also use tablets to provide activity for such individuals.

As cybersecurity has been emphasized with these seniors, many were initially cautious to open emails, even if they were from people involved in the program. Striking the right balance between awareness of phishing risks and answering important calls or emails was an important component in ensuring the project’s effectiveness, Schwarting explained.

In addition to combating social isolation, there are other long-term health benefits to this program. As Hightower explained, socially isolated seniors suffer increased risks of depression, anxiety, lethargy and hypertension.

“Not only does [this project] help save society lots of money by saving us the expensive costs of treating all of those diseases and others, it also helps extend and improve the quality of life of seniors,” she stated.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.