Like many families, my parents are over 65, and were eligible for their COVID-19 vaccine in January. The day my folks were eligible, around five o’clock, my mom called exasperated that she couldn’t get an appointment through the telephone and the website was difficult to navigate. Consequently, I kept calling the hotline and refreshing the website for an hour. Eventually, I got through to an operator and my parents signed up. My parents are fairly tech savvy people, so it naturally begged the question, how are we going to get older adults vaccinated, especially ones who are not comfortable with computers? But more broadly, how has the pandemic changed seniors’ relationship with the internet?
According to the Older Adults Technology Services (OATS), 22 million seniors lack broadband internet at home. Just take a second and let that number sink in. Even before the pandemic, try and think about your home life without access to broadband. Now, throw in the pandemic, and it really makes you wonder how these seniors were able to take care of life’s necessities. This statistic might help explain why 25% of seniors are “socially isolated,” with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labeling social isolation a “serious public health risk.”
It’s not just social interactions which have been disrupted because of the pandemic. Life’s daily routines like shopping and going to the doctor have moved online. The market research firm NPD Group’s Checkout Tracking reports that seniors in 2020 spent 60% more money online than they did in the previous year.
Obviously, getting seniors registered online for the vaccine brings its own set of challenges, even for those with easy internet access. Becky Preve from New York’s Association on Aging reports that seniors often lack email addresses, printers and are resistant to sharing personal health information over the web. All of this makes registering older Americans through the internet problematic. Regarding the phone, many seniors are hearing impaired, making phone calls difficult.
Fortunately, there has been both a government and nonprofit response. Last year New York City distributed 10,000 tablets to seniors with complimentary training, and the State of Georgia’s Division of Aging Services used money appropriated in the CARES Act to get older adults connected to the internet. Nonprofit organizations like OATS trained 48,000 older Americans on navigating the internet throughout the pandemic. Recently, local Area Agencies on Aging assisted with signing up for vaccines. Also, New York’s Rockland County arranged a call center, allowing older adults to speak with an operator that places them on a vaccine waiting list and arranges transportation to the appointment. “Most of my seniors, especially my older, older adults, are very scared, anxious and frustrated with the inability to register unless they had a computer,” said Tina Cardoza-Izquierdo, the county’s aging office director. She indicated the office was, “getting inundated with calls from seniors who really didn’t know what to do and where to turn.”
Recently, OATS and the Humana Foundation released a report, “Aging Connected: Exposing the Hidden Connectivity Crisis for Older Adults,” that examines why millions of older adults still remain without the internet. Factors like disability, education level, geography, health status, immigration, income and race are important factors in determining connectivity for seniors. The report states:
“We found, using the most comprehensive data sets available and the most experienced researchers conducting analysis, that lack of home broadband correlated strongly with virtually all major categories of socioeconomic inequality. If you are over 65 and lack a high school diploma, live in poverty, are non-White or foreign-born, live alone, suffer from poor health or physical disability, are female, or live in a rural area, then digital privation is likely added to any burdens you endure. In a nation committed to promoting equal opportunity for our citizens and seeking to redress past and continuing injustices, the technology gap stands out as a force that divides us, leaving millions of vulnerable older adults without many of the benefits of the digital age.”
The report outlines four ways to bridge the digital divide with seniors. They suggest 1) Increasing awareness about the internet’s value 2) Prioritizing social equity and inclusion 3) Expanding affordable internet and 4) Producing programing tailored for older adults.
At the B’nai B’rith Center for Senior Services we advocate on behalf of our senior housing community on Capitol Hill. During our recent meetings we have been promoting internet expansion for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) affordable senior housing community. Specifically, we are requesting $100 million dollars to expand senior internet connectivity in 3,300 communities. We believe this funding will help residents better connect with medical providers, family, friends and building staff. Fortunately, some of B’nai B’rith’s sponsored properties have already been able to get internet throughout the buildings. For example, in Allentown, Pennsylvania and Tucson, Arizona, our properties have building-wide Wi-Fi, enabling residents to connect their phones, tablets, computers and televisions to the internet. In Tucson, residents are able to check out laptops from the office and use them from the comfort of their own apartments.
Everyone should have access to broadband internet. The web has become a necessity and not a nicety. The pandemic has spotlighted the digital divide for seniors regarding internet connectivity. Hopefully, as we emerge from the pandemic, seniors will be afforded more opportunities for better internet access.
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