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Connecting Older New Yorkers Through Skills Training, AI

The New York State Office for the Aging is giving older adults more options to connect with each another and the world by providing them with a variety of technologies — and the skills they need to use them.

Close-up of an older adult's hands typing on a laptop keyboard.
Online classes for older adults are increasingly helping the New York State Office for the Aging (NYSOFA) not only raise digital skill levels — but more efficiently implement other technology to serve clients, including artificial intelligence.

NYSOFA has been instrumental in several major state initiatives to help seniors be more connected, including the distribution of robotic pets, and of ElliQ, an AI-powered virtual assistant. The agency began its first tech-focused project — those pets — in 2018, and now has 21 public-private partnerships with technology companies, Greg Olsen, NYSOFA acting director, said.

“We live in a technological age,” said Olsen, noting these technologies work together to “help people manage and improve their lives.”

Because the agency works closely with those it serves, the acting director said its existing relationships and digital literacy enable a more seamless implementation of unfamiliar technology tools — and ultimately, these implementations can build on the agency’s work to bridge the digital divide.

NYSOFA is not trying to replace human beings with technology, Olsen said, but rather, to use technology to enhance the work that is already being done, to better serve residents.

A focus on digital platforms became a particular priority during the COVID-19 pandemic; research suggests they can help combat isolation in seniors. However, this population faces its own unique digital divide.

In 2021, Olsen said the state started working with GetSetUp because it offered an online solution to combat loneliness, promote digital literacy, and importantly, improve overall health. The partnership helps educate older residents in digital and financial literacy, and about wellness. Using the platform, the state created targeted learning experiences for marginalized and underserved populations, including courses targeted to LGBTQ+ people and to veterans.

Some classes are live through real-time video, and others are available on demand, GetSetUp Director of Communications Liz Miller said via email. The company also offers live Community Sessions, which are social sessions focused on shared interests rather than learning a new skill. Olsen credits GetSetUp’s willingness to add content as requested by the agency and other stakeholders.

“Digital skills have become critical for older adults, especially as more products [and] services needed for daily life are increasingly offered via websites, apps and mobile devices,” GetSetUp President and co-founder Lawrence Kosick said via email.

Courses, Olsen said, are peer-led and taught — ensuring the teacher speaks the learner’s language. For older adults learning digital skills, being taught by someone who is 50 or older is much more impactful than being taught by somebody younger who grew up with technology integrated into their daily lives, Olsen said. “I think that matters.”

The collaboration’s results are already tangible, Olsen said, citing a reduction in loneliness, isolation and depression, and an overall improvement in health and wellbeing. Officials have the ability to see what classes are taken, and health and wellness-focused offerings consistently land in the top 10, he said.

The state fully subsidizes the GetSetUp platform, making it free for any New Yorker over 50. It also supports a variety of tech-related pilot projects NYSOFA has underway. This includes the 2018 animatronic pet project, which since its start has distributed more than 31,000 pets. Using the DeJong Gierveld Loneliness Scale to measure the initiative’s impact, Olsen cited a 75 percent reduction in loneliness, isolation, depression and pain.

NYSOFA partnered with ElliQ in May 2022 to distribute AI-powered virtual assistants that can store user information to inform better care, in an effort to reduce loneliness and improve broader health outcomes. So far, the state has distributed 900 of the virtual assistants. NYSOFA Public Information Director Roger Noyes previously told Government Technology that outcomes would be measured in several ways: through self-reporting, platform metrics, and interactive relationships with case managers.

“The end users know that she is an AI robot, and we’re not trying to fool anybody, but they don’t see her that way,” Olsen said, citing a 97 percent reduction in isolation with this tool.

AI plays a role in an upcoming NYSOFA pilot, which involves targeted content provided through the television for people with memory loss or dementia. This, Olsen said, will support older residents and their caregivers, helping in daily living tasks and keeping them calm without psychotropic medication: a built-in AI companion can provide more specifically targeted content to address specific issues, like loneliness.

The project and another pilot — a bidet with AI, aimed at reducing a high rate of falls in the bathroom for older adults and combatting a high rate of urinary tract infections in older women — are both slated to launch within the next two months.

Olsen said he is consistently exploring products that will help bridge a gap — due to workforce or budget restraints — in the agency’s service infrastructure, and then piloting them to see their impact.

What’s the next major tech innovation coming for NYSOFA? According to Olsen, “I’ll know it when I see it.”
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.