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Why older people are less connected -- location and money matter

Dial-up lives on -- and not necessarily out of preference. You may have read this last week: Rural America is stranded in the dial-up age.  That was disturbing on multiple levels, starting with the obvious.  Even people who could afford better access can’t get it – they drive to a gas station parking lot to obtain Internet speeds fast enough to do online business. Study the map in the article and ponder the status of elderly who live in these low-bandwidth locations. The article notes 23 million people (39% living in rural areas) who lack access to any type of broadband. Older adults make up a larger percentage of rural Americans, 16% than in the US as a whole and “people aged 75+ are more likely to have chronic diseases and disabilities."

What speed is fast enough to be online?  The term 'fast' has been defined by the "FCC as 25Mbps, a speed that can support email, web surfing, video streaming and graphics for more than one device at once." Let’s assume that two people live in a home, and that each has one device. Without at least that access speed, forget online learning, social networking, and no online shopping either. And older adults are not going to be learning how to use a device at a Apple stores, which are clustered in urban and maybe college locations.  As one professor quoted in the WSJ article noted: "Having access to broadband is simply keeping up. Not having it means sinking." 

What else keeps the oldest from going online besides access?  Well, money, for one thing, lack of it or worry about its ability to last long enough into old age. Concern about money has become a major contributor to caution and financial insecurity for the elderly – preventing them from moving into assisted living, purchasing more expensive devices and Internet service plans, let alone obtain appropriate training. Consider the median net worth of the population aged 75+ -- which was reported a few years ago to be $156K, inclusive of home equity.  The latest US Census number boosted that number to $198K ($47K without home equity).  So the improvement in net worth -- that’s pretty good, right? 

Oldest adults cannot afford to participate in a connected society. Well, no, $198K does not work -- since selling the home may not be feasible. And the costs of goods and services, including electronics (like pricey smartphones) and Internet access, may have risen right along with the value in seniors’ homes.  According to a 2016 UMass research report on the economic insecurity of older adults: “National averages indicate that among older adults living alone, 46% of those age 65 to 74 have annual incomes below the Elder Index. The risk of economic insecurity rises to 57% among adults age 75 to 84, and reaches 59% among those who are aged 85 or older.” That could be one reason you see the elderly with inexpensive flip phones -- or perhaps no phones at all.

Comments

If high speed internet and 5G smartphone service have the same effects in rural America that they do in urban Silicon Valley, we might want to wait until we figure out how to use our digital technologies to care for ourselves and each other before pushing it further.  Unless we are trying to abuse rural elders by neglect, we may want to reconsider providing their obligate caregivers, virtually everyone in their vicinity, more potent distractions from their duties than they already have.

As soon as it is faster, and better, and cheaper to care for ourselves using digitally integrated care service systems, older people will have something worth connecting to wherever they live, whatever the cost.