Six months ago, Cindy Sanders, 68, bought a computer to learn how to email and chat with Zoom with her great-grandchildren.
It is still in a box, unopened.
“I didn’t know how to set it up or how to get help,” said Sanders, who lives in Philadelphia and has been extremely careful during the coronavirus pandemic.
Like Sanders, millions of seniors are newly motivated to go online and participate in digital offerings after being locked inside, hoping to avoid the virus, for more than a year. But many need help and don’t know where to get it.
A recent AARP investigation, conducted in September and October, highlights the dilemma. He found that older people had boosted tech purchases during the pandemic, but more than half (54%) said they needed a better understanding of the devices they had acquired. Almost 4 in 10 people (37%) admitted that they were not confident about using these technologies.
Sanders, a retired hospital operating room attendant, is one of them. “Computers scare me,” she told me, “but this pandemic, it made me realize that I have to make a change and overcome this. “
With the help of a girl, Sanders plans to turn on her new computer and find out how to use it by looking at documents from Online Generations. Founded in 1999, the Philadelphia-based organization specializes in teaching seniors about digital devices and surfing the Internet. Sanders recently found out through a local senior citizen publication.
Before the pandemic, Generations on Line offered free in-person training sessions at senior centers, social housing complexes, libraries and retirement centers. When these programs were closed, he created an online program for smartphones and tablets (generationsonline.org / apps) and new tutorials on Zoom and telehealth as well as a “family coaching kit” to help seniors with technology. All are free and available to people across the country.
The demand for Generations on Line’s services increased tenfold during the pandemic as many older people became dangerously isolated and cut off from needed services.
Those who owned and knew how to use digital devices could do all kinds of activities online: connecting with family and friends, shopping for groceries, ordering prescriptions, taking classes, participating in telehealth sessions. and make an appointment to be vaccinated against covid. Those who did not were often lost – with potentially serious consequences.
“I’ve never described my work as a matter of life and death before,” said Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, an advocacy group for expanding broadband access. “But that’s what happened during the pandemic, especially with vaccines.”
Other organizations specializing in digital literacy for the elderly are also seeing renewed interest. Cyber Seniors, which pairs seniors with high school or college students who serve as tech mentors, has trained more than 10,000 seniors since April 2020 – three times the average in recent years. (Services are free, and grants and partnerships with government agencies and nonprofits provide funds, as do many of the organizations discussed here.)
Seniors who are using digital devices for the first time can call 1-844-217-3057 and be coached over the phone until they are comfortable taking online training. “There are a lot of organizations that give out tablets to seniors, which is fantastic, but they don’t even know the basics, and that’s where we come in,” said Brenda Rusnak, CEO of Cyber-Seniors. Individual coaching is also available.
Lyla Panichas, 78, who lives in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, received an iPad three months ago from Rhode Island digiAGE program – one of many local technology programs for the elderly that began during the pandemic. She is supported by the University of Rhode Island’s Cyber-Seniors Program, which plans to deliver digital training to 200 digiAGE participants in communities hardest hit by covid-19 by the end of this year. .
“The first time my tutor called me, I mean the kids rushed out. I said, wait a minute. You got a little old lady here. Let me follow you, ”Panichas said. “I couldn’t keep up and ended up crying.”
Panichas persisted, however, and when her guardian called back the following week, she began to “be able to grasp things”. Now she plays games online, streams movies, and has Zoom reunions with her son in Arizona and sister in Virginia. “It kind of allayed my fears of being isolated,” she told me.
OATS (Older Adults Technology Services) is poised to significantly expand the reach of its digital literacy programs after a recent affiliation with AARP. It operates a nationwide hotline for people seeking technical assistance, 1-920-666-1959, and operates Senior Planet Technology Training Centers in six cities (New York, Denver, Rockville, Maryland, Plattsburgh, New York, San Antonio , Texas and Palo Alto, California). All in-person classes converted to digital programming after the pandemic shut down much of the country.
Germaine St. John, 86, a former mayor of Laramie, Wyoming, found an online community of seniors and made some dear friends after signing up for Senior Planet Colorado during the pandemic. “I have a great support system here at Laramie, but I was very careful before going out because I was in the over 80 age group,” she told me. “I don’t know what I would have done without these activities.
Seniors from all over the country can take Senior Planet virtual classes for free. (A weekly schedule is available on seniorplanet.org/get-involved/online.) Through its AARP partnership, OATS offers another set of popular courses at the AARP Virtual Community Center. Tens of thousands of seniors are now participating.
An immediate priority is educating the elderly about the government’s new $ 32 billion broadband emergency benefit for low-income people, which was funded by a coronavirus relief program and has become available. last month. This short-term program offers monthly discounts of $ 50 on high-speed Internet services and a one-time discount of up to $ 100 for the purchase of a computer or tablet. But the benefit is not automatic. People must apply to get financing.
“We ask anyone over 50 to try the Internet and discover its value,” said Thomas Kamber, Executive Director of OATS. Nearly 22 million seniors do not have access to high-speed internet services, largely because these services are unaffordable or unavailable, according to a January report co-sponsored by OATS and the Humana Foundation, its Aging Connected partner.
Other new companies are also helping older people with technology. Candoo technology, which launched in February 2019, works directly with older people in 32 states as well as with organizations such as libraries, senior citizen centers, and retirement centers.
For various fees, Candoo Tech offers technology training over the phone or virtually, as needed, “technical janitor” assistance, advice on what technology to purchase, and help in preparing devices for out-of-the-box use.
“You can give a senior a device, internet access, and amazing content, but if no one shows them what to do, it will go unused,” said Liz Hamburg, President and CEO of Candoo.
GetSetUpThe model relies on older people to teach skills to their peers in small, interactive classrooms. It started in February 2020 with a focus on technical training, realizing that “fear of technology” prevented older people from exploring “a whole world of online experiences,” said Neil Dsouza, founder and General manager.
For seniors who have never used digital devices, retired teachers serve as technical advisers over the phone. “Someone can call [1-888-559-1614] and we’ll walk them through the process of downloading an app, usually Zoom, and our lessons, ”Dsouza said. GetSetUp offers approximately 80 hours of virtual technology education each week.
For more information on technical training for the elderly in your area, contact your local library, senior center, department on aging, or regional agency on aging. In addition, each state has a National Assistive Technology Act training center for the elderly and people with disabilities. These centers allow people to borrow devices and offer advice on financial aid. Some have started collecting and distributing used smartphones, tablets and computers during the pandemic.
For more information on a program in your area, go to at3center.net.
Kaiser Health News is a non-profit news service covering health issues. This is an independent editorial program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.