Checking email, looking up drug interactions, receiving photos of grandchildren, video conferencing with family, following up with doctors — digital technology is now so woven into our lives, we can’t imagine an hour, much less a whole day, without it. And yet there are so many seniors who have to live without access to the wealth of information and entertainment that the digital world provides. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, almost half of all Americans over 65 cannot access the internet.
According to The Phoenix Center, internet use decreased depression in seniors by 20 percent. Seniors struggle with feeling relevant, included in our society, and connected to others. The digital divide reinforces those negative feelings and drains seniors of quality of life. Add to all of this being a person of color, or a Native American on a reservation, and those feelings of isolation can become very profound. Connection to the world is a basic human need, and digital devices are a great way for older generations to gain access.
Not only are devices a channel for chatting with friends and watching videos of loved ones, there is safety in digital communication. During major natural disasters, social media, texting, and other digital services provide lifesaving information and updates. Many disaster-preparedness programs are computer-based, and applying for assistance in the wake of a major disaster is done mostly online. Though nothing can replace the value of a tight-knit, in-person community, the internet is an extension of our global community, and one to which seniors need access. Luckily, there are great resources out there to help seniors.
When polled, seniors often cite digital access as unnecessary or irrelevant. The lower their income, the less likely seniors are to engage with technology, and the gap widens with minority and underserved populations. And there’s logic at work there — if you’ve lived to 85 without using a computer, why start now? Why bother with the complication and frustration of learning something new? Why foster dependence on devices and machines that are ultimately very expensive? The answers aren’t necessarily simple. But technology is now such an essential component in our lives, that not learning these new skills can leave seniors in the dark.
Many community programs and senior centers encourage intergenerational teaching — teens teaching seniors the basics of Facebook. Others prefer peer teaching to engage seniors in learning. However taught, the goal is to foster digital inclusion, to make classes as approachable as possible, and to offer equipment and gadgets that are affordable.
CenturyLink offers a discounted plan called Internet Basics. For $9.95 a month, qualifying households receive internet access. CenturyLink also offers free basic internet training in person or in print, and a reduction on home phone service as well. When one imagines Comcast, one doesn’t always picture good deeds and excellent service, but Comcast launched Internet Essentials for low-income families a few years ago. Internet Essentials is also $9.95, and offers in-home wifi in its package. They also have free online classes, tutorials, and low-cost computers. Designed for students in school lunch programs, Internet Essentials is being offered as a pilot program specifically for seniors in Massachusetts, Florida, and California. Participants must be 62 or older and receive public assistance.
In Washington State, the Washington Access Fund provides information and resources about low- and no-cost computer products, services, and devices. InterConnection, a nonprofit out of Seattle, offers low-cost computers and hardware to seniors and nonprofits.