Helping seniors get online -- whose job is it anyway?

It’s a puzzlement – finding the organizations trying to get older adults online.  Last June I wrote a post about getting older adults online – in particular, the age range from 75 and beyond – only 34% of those folks were online at that time. Yet so many organizations offer online assistance in coping with a variety of concerns of older adults, whether it is taxpayer assistance, help with online banking, obtaining coupons for grocery savings, even a Geek Squad coupon from AARP -- and it is, naturally, available online!  -- to help with problems that older adults might have using computers. Duh. And a new campaign, Everyone On, has produced Connect2Compete, a public-private partnership that has been launched to help low-income individuals cross the digital divide – but only if they have a child on the ‘federal free and reduced-cost lunch programs.' 

Help poor children gain online skills, such a good idea, but what about seniors? One-third of women aged 65+ live exclusively on Social Security income – which averages $12,500. Are they part of efforts to get 'everyone on'? That seems unlikely, given the cost of devices (iPad mini costs more than $300), Internet Service plans ($30-40/month at low end), and technical support ($49.99 for 90 minutes in-home from Best Buy) – and the reality of their income. Further, if they survive to age 65+, they are going to live, on average, another twenty years – with one in four women surviving past 90. Will they have access to all (or any) of those discount and service benefits described above? The Linkage Technology survey in 2011 found that those seniors with incomes lower than $25,000/year were not willing to pay for technology – but they wished they could afford it – this comment was typical: "I am interested in the new technology, but I am unable to pay because I am on a fixed income."

Who should help the oldest gain those benefits that can be found online? So in that ever-longer survival period past 65, when social security checks must be direct-deposited, when there are no more paper savings bonds, when the concept of a physical coupon is migrating online, and where the yellow pages of business and service options may soon disappear, seniors will live long enough to lose more of these artifacts of their lives.  So who has the constituency and the clout to lobby governments to change this? Who could work with private industry on efforts like the kids-only EveryoneOn program, and carriers (who own the broadband kingdom and set the price of access) to enable significant movement for the 65+ from that pathetic 53% online in 2012 to 100% online by 2020? And if no broadband is available where they live, will all seniors go to places that have WiFi like McDonalds (11,000 locations), Panera Bread (1565 stores) or Starbucks (17,000+) to gain access? Judging by the crowds clogging these shops with their computers and coffee, maybe the 100% goal really should be propelled forward by the restaurant industry. But for those who have no usable and portable device, are homebound or can’t get to one of these stores, or don’t know how to connect, there must be another solution that can move this needle faster. Comments welcome.

From Carol R. Kaufman

We help clients create their Life Inventory™, a catalog of all of their important "stuff" - personal, medical, financial), aggregated into one safe, secure place, open only on their PC, but able to be stored, closed, on the Internet. In doing so, we help them use the computer as part of the task, especially Seniors. They need to be patiently talked through how to get into a WebEx meeting. They love the one-on-one, having an "accountability partner" help walk them through what needs to be accumulated and they can watch us, via WebEx, input their non-confidential information into their computer. They're learning as they watch and, inevitably, we show them places to go (how to get an address of one of their service providers,, or a doctor, or a hospital) and answer all kinds of questions about how to "do things" on the computer. We offer training classes to teach entrepreneurial people how to perform this "JumpStart" process so they can start their own businesses all over the country, doing the same things we do...especially for Seniors. We don't franchise. We create opportunities for people to earn income by helping others. So, in answer to the question, it seems that it's become a natural part of our job and, in fact, a rewarding one!


Critical Services Going Online

The issue of getting seniors and low-income individuals online is important because it may soon be the ONLY way to get service. Take banking for example, and compare the cost of a simple transaction by a teller, including wages and benefits, with that of an ATM.

Thinking back to my IBM days in the Banking Industry, I once looked up the statistics. According to a 1996 survey by Booz, Allen and Hamilton, the estimated cost of providing routine business transactions in a full-service branch was $1.07 per transaction, compared with 27 cents for ATM transactions and 1.5 cents for Internet banking. The cost disparity is far worse today.

ATMs have a high initial cost but function 24 hours a day, and by handling most of the small transactions, ATMs save banks lots of money while also attracting new customers with the convenience of 24-hour access. Then extend that model to Internet banking from the convenience of your home, even in your PJs, and where banks avoid the cost of maintaining ATMs.

You see where this is going. Social Security and Unemployment benefits are already paid online instead of by mailing a check. So getting online will soon become critical to survival in modern society, and bridging the Digital Divide will become more important than ever.

As I’ll mention in other comments, things may not be as bad for seniors as first thought. The key, IMO, is less about cost and getting trained and more about finding purpose and motivation.

>>The key, IMO, is less about

>>The key, IMO, is less about cost and getting trained and more about finding purpose and motivation.

Wayne, I agree!

Michael Walsh: Seeing the value of being online

Great points Laurie and awesome comments from everyone here.  I totally agree that this is an issue that needs addressing.  I wanted to double check my statistics here, so found this that illustrated well...
Look at that graph on page 4 of the full report showing internet use by age group. A ginormous 97% of people in my age group are online, but only 53% of the 65+ group has followed suit. I mean, sure, that's an improvement from the 33% or so from 5 years ago, but still.  Why the huge disconnect?  They've all had the same access to the technology that I've had the last 12 years.  Haha, plus they probably didn't have to spend their allowance on the technology like I had to!  
I've had a chance to meet with many seniors this past year while working on launching my startup, Cariloop.  We're trying to make it easier for senior care and service providers to get online and engage with those that are online savvy and shopping at home.  What we realized early on was that most of the people working for senior care and service providers were in fact seniors themselves.  So, we faced the same challenge, how to get these people to see that this is a GOOD thing, when many of them would rather do it the way they've done it for 30 years.  Many resisted. Some wanted and still want absolutely nothing to do with anything online.
So, whose job is it? Sure, we all can pitch in and help, but isn't this more about the senior demographic actually wanting to be online as opposed to us helping them do so?  Totally understand some of the things you mention about certain demographics simply not being able to do it, but when I see the number 53% of 65+ peeps online and think about that other 47%, there's a much deeper issue than just internet and technology accessibility.  Many just don't want to.  Many are afraid of it even. I don't think the question is as much how do we help them get online, I think it’s more how do we help them see the value of being online? This is a behavior or lifestyle change for many of these folks.
Loved the article and looking forward to stopping by and checking out more great stuff from this blog!


Summary Statistics

Technical & cost barriers to going online are falling so rapidly that finding motivation and purpose is now more important than cost or ease of use. Here are some stats about Senior Use of the Internet from my growing collection (most from PEW):

  • Senior (65+) use of Internet has grown rapidly, from 19% in 2008 to 40% in 2010 and 53% in 2012.
  • Once seniors are logged on, the Internet tends to become a fixture of daily life
  • Online seniors are social. 2/3 of them communicate with Family & Friends by email, and they represent the fastest growth in social media adoption, growing from 25% to 47% between April'09 and May'10, and even using Skype or FaceTime.
  • Half of online seniors search for health info online.
  • However, adults over age 75 are much less interested in using the Internet, which is why my startup, Modern Health Talk, targets their adult children who are more likely to go online to find tech solutions for their parents.

Tech savvy boomers are sophisticated shoppers and purchasers of health care.

  • Half of those 65+ search for health info online. They research their own conditions and want more control over their health care in partnership with care providers.
  • They seek customized insurance and care plans tailored to their needs. They comparison shop, check with their peers, and will change plans if they find something better.
  • Their increased demands will drive more competition and accelerate innovation.
  • Half of health information searches are conducted on behalf of someone else.
  • 80% of Internet users say that their last health-related search began at a search engine, rather than a health-specific site like WebMD (13%). Only 1% started at a social network like Facebook.
  • Although awareness of Assistive technology is low (other than security systems), 78% of US consumers expressed interest in mobile health solutions.
  • Although awareness of Assistive technology is low (other than security systems), 78% of US consumers expressed interest in mobile health solutions.
  • Tablets - Physician adoption almost doubled since 2011, reaching 62% in 2012, with iPad being the dominant platform. (Manhattan Research)
  • Tablets - Consumer adoption is a bit slower, with 19% of adults owning tablet computers by January 2012. The Apple iPad 2 may change that, since it’s equally usable by a two-year old as by an eighty-two year old and, with cellular access and iCloud service, no longer needs a wired broadband connection and wireless home network.

Well said, Michael!

Well said, Michael! Especially:

"..there's a much deeper issue than just internet and technology accessibility. Many just don't want to. Many are afraid of it even. I don't think the question is as much how do we help them get online, I think it’s more how do we help them see the value of being online? This is a behavior or lifestyle change for many of these folks."

As I wrote earlier, I would like to see the 47% be able to choose to get online or not based on informed choices, the chance to learn through non-patronizing, encouraging teachers, and the existence of intelligent, useful and entertaining destination sites with perhaps even a f2f, local component to offer as an adjunct. This is doable, I believe there is grant money out there for pilot projects, but it is also a big project. Which, personally, is why at my age :) I would definitely want to be part of a team to see it happen. Maybe somebody(-s) are doing this out there already. That would be another point of the destination site: sharing best practices, successful projects underway, etc.

I heard at one point that the Village movement had a thriving local online senior community in their Dupont Circle Village in the DC area. This is a value-add of their grassroots membership organization. It looks like one way to go. However, the yearly membership fee is prohibitive for some people.

Helping Seniors Get On Line

In a perfect world, the savings that government agencies and other organizations achieve through transitions from staff to technology/on-line services would be dedicated to education and other out-of-the-box solutions. I was thinking recently about all the US post offices that will soon be empty. What's going to happen to those buildings/structures that have a history of being the conduit for communication between people? Perhaps in our contemporary tech era, they could serve another function, i.e. computer terminals/kiosks with access and instruction for all those who can't afford a computer of their own.

Whose job is it anyway - a view from the UK

Hello Laurie from across The Pond!

Your newsletter arrived brimming with things to think about, as usual. We look to the good ol’ US of A to spot a trend here and there when it comes to tech and ageing - well, I do anyway. So, how interesting to see you also wondering whose job it is to teach older Americans how to make the most of today’s digiworld. We are facing the same conundrum ourselves it would appear.

Here’s what we know, as of today anyway, who knows what tomorrow brings. The government over here is rolling out something called the ‘digital by default’ agenda . Yes you’ve guessed it, we are soon to forget we ever saw a paper form, telephoned anyone or, lawks a mercy, went into a building to find a warm body and have some interaction that resulted in a ‘transaction.’ I am being glib. We of course need to move services, including government ones, online so we can all do things more quickly, easily (= on our own terms) and cheaply. As you may know we have a large welfare state (it was larger even just last week, but has contracted since what we call April Fools’ Day and this is set to continue) but notwithstanding, the government has 650 transactions with the citizen. These range from getting a driving licence to appointing lasting power of attorney to getting a fishing permit and just about everything else in between. The government says it can save £1.8bn a year by getting us citizens to do those things online.

In order for this nirvana to materialise, the current plan is to bring all those services online progressively (= over a number of years) starting with the ones that are most used. This means making them fit for purpose, including being accessible, and integrating them into one central online platform It also means working out a parallel plan, called the Assisted Digital Strategy, which is concerned with what support should be given to people who are not online, or who are online but whose digital skills are not really up to using government services online - such as many older people. There are it is said 16m people in the UK who don’t have basic online skills and 9.8m people who are ‘narrow internet users’ ( ). On top of all the people who are simply and straightforwardly not online (7.4m, of which 56% are over 65) – well, that’s a lot of people who won’t be arranging lasting power of attorney, or much else, via

But, guess what Laurie, teaching people how to use online services and supporting people who don’t have access to an internet connected device to get some is not part of the (current)assistance plan. And many people – including a number of MPs from all sides – are getting a little worried about this. More about that here. We are all quite agog.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Good things do also exist, even now. Like Digital Unite – we have a network of tutors we have oodles of free digital skills learning content (but yes you do have to be online first, or know someone who is), we have an online community and most pertinent to this discussion - we have Spring Online .

Spring Online is a big annual campaign in which we at Digital Unite galvanise several hundred community event holders to run thousands of free digital taster sessions for older people. Hundreds of people will give their time for free to help run these events. And we encourage people to do their bit even on a very informal level such as supporting friends and friends of friends with a little light tuition. Tens of thousands of older newbies to life online will benefit from this mass digital do-gooding.

AND Spring Online has enlightened corporate sponsors; Carphone Warehouse, BMI Healthcare, Streetlife and M&S are all getting behind the 2013 campaign . Because, as you rightly observe, they all have something to gain from supporting their older existing and would be customers to get online. It is as simple as that.

So, as to getting that needle moving faster; well in the UK, if the collective aspiration is a connected society, then we all – govt, business and friends and family - share the responsibility for making that a reality. And those businesses doing good business could do worse than invest in proactive digital inclusion (=making real things happen for real people in real life) as an enlightened form of marketing. As to the responsibility of the state, well, if it really wants digital citizens it may need to do a bit more proactive digital inclusion itself too.

Digital Unite and Spring Online

Hi Emma - Your programs sound wonderful and exactly what is needed. It is not all doom and gloom, indeed. There are many people at the grassroots level trying to rectify this situation of digitally disempowered seniors. It would be neat to have a central hub online that would offer community, resources and a section on "best practices" where people interested in helping connect seniors could read about successful projects that are happening in that vein around the world, get ideas from them, contact the organizers even and not have to reinvent the wheel.

Here in my area I know of a few volunteers who spend their retirement free time teaching one on one how to access and what some of the benefits of connectivity are. One draw for seniors to get online would be an online community built around their particular interests and issues. For those who are not homebound, the online community could meet offline too now and then - a way to make friends.

Anyway, thanks for sharing your news from across the pond. :)

Helping seniors get online

Hi Laurie,

The Benton Foundation and Senior Service America share your view that EveryoneON is likely to leave many older Americans behind. See our March 21st analysis/commentary and Connect2Compete's response here:

The EveryoneOn (E1On) campaign, which is part of C2C, notes that 1 in 5 Americans (62 million) do not go online. That figure is therefore based on the total U.S. population of about 312 million, including about 21 million children under age 5. Realistically then, 41 million Americans age 5 and older do not go online. Of that non-user group, about 23 million are age 60 and over - more than half of all non-users.

So we agree that more must be done to reach a large proportion of those older adults, especially those with low income. A few major broadband providers have programs that provide low-cost access and/or computers to eligible people. The challenge is not only finding those eligible people but also making them aware of the Internet's benefits.

Outreach to offline seniors - regardless of income - often requires one-on-one efforts to introduce them to the variety of information and features available on the Internet. We are convinced that such exposure will dispel the common perception among non-users that the Internet is not relevant to their lives. Along with interpersonal contacts, trusted community institutions provide opportunities to provide such demonstrations. That's why the E1On collaboration with public libraries makes sense. It just goesn't go far enough to effectively reach millions of offlne seniors.


Finding Purpose & Motivation

About the purpose and motivation of going online, I use my wife as an example. While I’m a retired IBM technologist, Yvonne is a classic technophobe – completely uninterested in computers and technology until it offers her something she can’t live without. I often used her as a Guinea pig to experiment on to see how the mass market would react to new technologies, and I was amazed at how fast she warmed to the Internet once she found purpose.

Her motivation was when our teenage son joined a world-famous drum corps that required a couple of visits from Texas to New Jersey each month for rehearsals. She quickly learned how to shop online for cheap airfares and then became an avid online shopper. When I got her an iPhone, I noticed that she did everything online on the phone instead of her notebook PC and never again turned the thing on. She had the iPhone with her always and could use it from the sofa rather than sitting at a PC desk, so I bought her an iPad with the same user interface on a larger display. Later I got both her and my son iPhone 4’s so we could do video calls with FaceTime. With a granddaughter now, you couldn't pry the iPhone from her hands. That's the way I see many seniors taking to the Internet once they find purpose.

Hi Bob, I remember when

Hi Bob, I remember when businesses and computer geeks used to think that women would never use the Internet. Seriously! We encountered many women who were not online (there were about 5-10% of online users being female at the time) and ran into many reasons why they were not - the primary two reasons were 1. thinking it was too complicated and 2. not thinking there was any big value to being online that would justify the effort to learn how.

I know that SeniorNet - the original online community for older folks - was a thriving online community that was connected with local computer learning centers.

I agree with you that teaching seniors the benefits they can find to being online, then teaching them with respect and one on one or one on a small group, is the only way this would work. And even so, many may decide it's not for them. Which is totally fine. I just hate to see so many homebound isolated seniors not online because there is no one to teach them and no particular place to go online where they can find friends and reliable info in an interactive community geared to their particular issues.

When I founded, my vision was to connect new moms and busy working moms who were so busy that they didn't get out of the house to connect with groups of friends and resources, or they were so tired when they got home and finished putting the kids to bed that they didn't want to go back out to connect with groups of friends. And now look! Such a network is no longer needed because we go everywhere and are ubiquitous online. I think we need that same thing for seniors - they need it IMHO and we need their voices as we see our society falling apart around us.

:) I'll be quiet now. :)

Personal and trusted interaction is the key element.

Hi Nancy,
First, sorry for delaying this reply to your and others' comments. There are so many good thoughts that it was difficult to pick where to reply. Your ideas about reaching out to seniors are precisely what we believe is the key element in getting OFFLINE seniors interested in the Internet. There is plenty of training available, often free, for those who are already interested and motivated.

From 2010 to 2011 our Digital Inclusion Initiative reached 25,000+ seniors through free computer COACHING (not classroom training) sessions at >340 public sites such as libraries, senior centers, etc. They had agreed to set aside certain times each week for senior learners to attend sessions where they used the SELF-PACED Generations on Line tutorial program and where our participants in the Senior Community Service Employment Program served as peer coaches to provide one-on-one assistance. Learners who completed the tutorial (~80% over time; great variation in duration because of the self-pacing) gained the needed skills to use the Internet.

But our research also shows substantial improvement in attitudes and morale among the majority of 'graduates' across a 10-item battery (life sat, purpose in life, etc,), based on pair-wise comparisons of the same persons (N=~10,000) between their first and last coaching session. This significant positive change in mental well-being occurred in only 6-7 weeks, the average time for a learner to complete the tutorial. I have a PowerPoint of selected research findings and am writing an article. If you want a copy of the PPt, contact me at

But note, the DII learners were already motivated to become computer literate or to improve their skills. To reach the 23 million persons age 60+ who are offline and "not interested" requires a different approach. Digital Unite's Spring Online campaign in the UK is a fine example of what is needed (see Emma Solomon's note). They began more than a decade ago with Silver Surfers Day ("silver" is not my preferred way to reference my generation!) and it is now a weeklong annual event. Most offline seniors are unaware of what is available on the Internet and how it can benefit their dialy lives. In national surveys (Pew; Census ACS Supplement) the most frequent response about the Internet by non-users is "not interested" or not relevant. Also, our DII data show that fear of computers and lack of self-confidence are significant barriers. This 'computer anxiety' is not documented in those national surveys.

These two major barriers are best overcome when one person (a mentor) shows the non-user (a taster) how to access the Internet and the variety of things it provides -- a "tasting session." The key is personal interaction, especially if the mentor is a friend or relative (e.g., adult child, grandchild, niece, etc.). Like the DII, it also is helpful if the mentor is an age peer: "If I can do it, you can do it."

We believe this is the most logical approach, even though it requires considerable effort. Digital United knows this well. Online approaches are far less likely to reach senior non-users (duh!). Once tasters see that computers are not that difficult to use (even if one makes a mistake) and realize the plethora of things available on the Internet, most will want to become digitally literate. That is where the 'cost barrier' is likely to dissipate. Except for the lowest income group, "cost" is a relative term. It's really about value. If non-users see that access to the Internet has value they are more likely to find a way to pay for broadband access.

Senior Service America has started a small-scale pilot project where a computer literate senior is a mentor to an offline senior in a tasting session that lasts 1-1.5 hours. This is very similar to the Spring Online model. We hope to expand our pilot in the near future. The project will collect information to discern general results and to learn what works best in helping offline seniors become interested and motivated to learn how to access the Internet.

By the way, about half of the 23 million persons age 60+ who are offline are persons age 75+, to which Laurie and others have referred. Indeed, one reason that Internet use for the 65+ population increased dramatically from 41% in 2010 to 54% in Nov/Dec 2012 (Pew) is the "cohort effect." In 2010, 76% of persons age 50-64 were online. Users aged 63-64 in 2010 became part of the 65+ group in 2012, helping to bump up the overall percentage of 65+ users. But reaching the oldest age cohorts will require the type of interpersonal efforts described above.


Online Resource Center and Community for Seniors

Hi Laurie,
Thank you for your post and I hear your frustration about who is going to move forward to educate and support seniors to be able to take greater advantage of the digital age?

I am a geriatric psychotherapist and family consultant on aging. However, in my prior career, I started Women's Wire which became and also started the first Women's Channel for America Online. I also founded a group of online support groups focused on a variety of physical illnesses. I was part of the management team at one of the most wellknown and first online communities The WELL. I consulted for an early online network called Senior Net. I received a grant to teach social media skills to nonprofits across California serving low income minority women.

I only mention this because I have been devoted to empowering populations to be able to make informed choices about taking advantage of the power of online technology. If they didn't want to use it, fine. But at least they could decide based on information.

So, naturally when my focus turned to gerontology and working with adult children of older parents and with elders, I thought of building an online resource center and community where people could find information and connections in their local area. We have *nothing* like that in our county. There are some online resource centers with no one to answer questions, no community, and outdated information.

I went around talking with folks about the need for a hub of this sort and blogged about it and have not found a single person who wanted to help with a project like this. There were many many people who thought it was a neat idea and much needed but no one who had skills with whom I could partner. And a partner is a must in order for me to want to attempt this project even in local pilot project.

Our county is the fastest aging county in California. Many people talk about oh dear what shall we do. But nobody seems to get it that an online community and resource center focused on the issues and interests of older people - one that is moderated for quality control - would be such a valuable help and would even take the load off of social service organizations.

Sometimes I think there's a turf issue where current social service agencies seem like they want it the way it is. But I see the need as I meet with many many seniors and families who are my clients who are struggling with trying to find answers to their questions and solutions to their needs.

Sorry about the rant. It just amazes me though that people don't see this in my area. At least I haven't found anybody so far that seems to get it and wants to help.

- Nancy

Promoting Online Access for Seniors

Check out Laurie's previous post under assistive technologies, "The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)® announced the launch of its charitable supporting organization, the CEA Foundation." Perhaps your idea is grant worthy!

Hi Randi, I think it is grantworthy

Hi Randi, I think it is, in all likelihood, grant worthy. I think the thing that holds me back is that, from having founded new businesses before, I know that grantors or funders typically look at the management team section of the business plan. I would need to have a partner at least who can help take on what would be a big project, I think. Maybe posting here and putting out my interest and attention again will bring some more energy to such a project. :) Actually it doesn't necessarily need to be local grassroots. It could have more of an overall reach with subsections organized by geographical areas. More thoughts... Off to my paying job. :) And I will check out the CEO Foundation, thanks for the tip!

Re: Promoting Online Access for Seniors

Randi - Thank you for thinking of the CEA Foundation.

Nancy - I'll send you an email to the address on your website. I know of a few organizations that are focused on these issues and would be happy to help make some connections.

Steve Ewell
CEA Foundation

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