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Internet and oldest adults -- closing the gap

So internet use is up -- for almost everyone.  The latest survey from Pew is out -- and Internet use among the 65+ age segment is up -- more than half of those surveyed say they are online. But that would be the age band from 65 to 75 -- sometimes referred to as the 'young old'.  After 75, only 34% are online, and only one in five have home broadband. (As you must know by now, even reading this blog would be an endurance test at dial-up speeds -- and it has no graphics!) For the two-thirds of those aged 76 and beyond that are not online yet -- it seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Non-users in previous surveys said that to use the Internet would require training and help to go online. Yet non-users also indicated lack of relevance as a reason not to bother. But if they don't have the training to make it happen, it seems tough to determine if the content found there is relevant or not. Could be anything ranging from a WebMD symptom checker to  discounts to health information from NCOA to free online courses offered by MIT. To me, that implies that action is required -- and it is more than the initiative by AARP and the Geek Squad. 

Helping those online to become more proficient - that's happening. Tech support from the Geeks is great -- once older adults are in mid-battle with their boxes and batteries. But where is the getting-started effort that will fill in the remaining skill gaps?  The National Council on Aging site's health information page is instructive -- asking if you have speakers attached to your computer, so that you can hear a course, but there is nothing on that site that shows recognition of the two-thirds of older adults who are NOT going to hear the course, no way, no how. Individual libraries, maybe; and volunteers in senior centers offer help in varying and ad-hoc ways.  Some effort has been made to brainstorm ways to help the low-income elderly gain access to the internet. SeniorNet, which was originally founded thirty years ago to help seniors learn to use computers, is also trying to help the connected, well, connect more -- see GrandMentor program (read a book to a child via Skype, similar to Readeo) as an example.

So which organization will set a goal to close the gap? Today's initiatives seem well-intentioned but fragmented -- not organized towards a common mission: get 100% of older adults online so that they could access the services from the above that teach them how to do more -- but with greater access.  The Project GOAL effort launched a few years ago has gone relatively quiet since last year. Perhaps there is a general perception among sponsors and members that little more needs to be done -- that online access growth (as Pew research indicates, now more than 50% among the 65+) is happening without further effort from any collective group. Will Verizon help by offering low cost access? Only if you buy Triple Play -- online. Which is really the point.  You want to buy something, get a service, find a resource in any of a million different categories, the real 'library' of choices is online, not at the library. The excluded class of people are those whose life expectancy reaches out into that offline decade.  Some group that sees seniors as its constituency, that has nationwide reach and the money to get the training set up in every region, that group should set the 100% goal. Who might that be? Suggestions are welcome.


Laurie, Outstanding analysis as usual. Here's a cadre of stakeholders that could play in this sandbox: Medicare ACOs and medical homes that have high proportions of patients enrolled in Medicare. That's because payment will be tied to quality and outcomes, and that will mean keeping people out of hospital beds and safe and healthy at home. These patients/people will need to be armed with tools, remote monitoring and -- most importantly -- health literacy and competency in the community. It will behoove an ACO to make the investment to teach people how to be engaged, empowered, health-literate patients. JSK

Laurie -

As always, your blog post is thought-provoking. My 85 year old mother-in-law has been on-line for years, a source of information and connection via Skype to her grandchildren. Perhaps the solution lies not with an organization that sees seniors as their constituents but with high school and college aged students who could be challenged to get all seniors within their reach on-line. For example, the National Honor Society could team up with local COAs to make it happen. This approach would encourage intergenerational connections, too.


What also is rarely factored in with older adults using computers is that many have significant vision impairment that makes use difficult. While there are many accessibility features available, most don't know about them, and even less, know how to set them up to use effectively. Staff at the Apple store mainly knows about the features embedded in Apple products but don't know about LookTel money reader, color identifier apps. etc. This is a piece of the conversation that is rarely understood, and as a non profit exec of an organization serving older, visually impaired adults about impossible to find the funding for providing this services.

To add to Jane’s list, I work for Kaiser (part time) and they have the “THRIVE” campaign. Being connected online is very much inline with thriving and staying in touch with “community” (systems approach to health).
So, healthcare groups like Kaiser could incorporate computer training for seniors as part of there Silver-Fit/SilverSneaksers programs offered to older Kaiser Members.

Kaiser uses an online system to keep in touch with members—having computer savvy seniors could be a cost-savings to Kaiser by avoiding office visits, and or, un-necessary clinic visits that could be handled online by staff members.

Also mentioned was the term “relevant,” the use of computers must be approached in terms of relevancy to the older adult: How will using a computer impact the lives of the users in ways tailored specifically for each individual.

Also, I have older family members who live in clutter (hoarding) and this is an obstacle to their getting setup for wireless at home—they don’t want a service person to come into the home due to the clutter. They have informed me they will have someone come in when the clutter is cleared out…which is never. So issues like this also impede adoption.

Good thoughts as usual Laurie, thanks for continually being part of the solution.

Best, Patrick

Hi Laurie,
I particularly loved to see a mention of SeniorNet in your article as I consulted for them in the about 1992 - I was working at the WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), one of the first thriving online communities when access was dial-up. SeniorNet was a thriving community of older adult online pioneers. Locally, I'd like to get something going like that for young-old, old, and oldest-old, perhaps as someone mentioned above in combination with high school students who would teach people how to access the tools and compelling information which might entice them to invest some time into learning how to access.

It seems to be there are tools to make access simple, with enlarged print for those whose eyesight is not good but still ok, and if people had helpers to show them how for a few sessions, and show them where the good sites are for them, it would make a difference.

Locally where I live, the chief complaint from older people and from adult children of aging parents is not knowing where to go for the kinds of help they need. There are online listings and print listings but they are often out of date and un-vetted so people don't know whose good to go to. I think a local grassroots online community with reviews a la Yelp, moderated so scammers and elder abuse potential is kept out as much as possible - these are ideas I think about for the fast growing older population in my neck of the woods.

Thanks for your post, very thought-provoking!
- Nancy Rhine, MS, LMFT, Gerontologist

Laurie, you're absolutely correct that there needs to be a more affordable internet access for low income seniors. In today's technology age, no group should be left behind simply because of little or no access. At Telikin, we hear from folks who want to buy our computer but don't have the high speed internet access to get the most out of the product. These seniors want to get online, but there are barriers outside of their control preventing them from doing so.

Furthermore, there is another component to this issue. Even with internet access, seniors need the right product or tool to use. As June touched on, many companies don't think about their end-users and instead focus on their product so much that they lose sight of what their customers need. A recent article on the AgeTek blog does a great job summarizing this problem and how it can be overcome (http://agetek.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/agetek-insiders-insights-webinar-...). Listening to our customers has given us valuable feedback about what they want and how we can make our computer better for them. So the solution will have to be multifaceted including 1) providing affordable access, 2) having the right technology tools and 3) the best resources for supporting the end users.

Great article! Very insightful and I agree on all points.
And yes, although AARP and Geek Squad has partnered there will still be a gap as Geek Squad is not trained in finding the right HW and SW for our seniors or the understanding of a seniors' level on the computer (which widely varies depending on past career, experience, kids etc). In training, a blend of modern and traditional methods plus different styles of learning must be used.

2 years ago I started SilverFox Broadband to specifically solve this problem. I founded the company after having another company that did the same thing for student housing and selling it in 2010. Originally we saw the growing wave of users that would hit the senior market and we wanted to address that for the business reasons. Now, after serving the market for a few years, there is so much more meaning for me and the rest of the company. We get to make an actual impact on people's lives. We help residents connect with their distant family that they otherwise couldn't, we help them stay active and engaged in their community, we make a real difference. There is a true satisfaction compared to just getting an 18-year old online so he can play video games, like we did at my old company.

Despite our purpose and passion, we still run into challenges. Many of those challenges are noted by the other comments to Laurie's post (easy devices, training, purpose to go online, etc), but there are 2 MAJOR challenges we face that are often overlooked.

#1 Challenge: Our number 1 challenge is that properties don't know there is a solution other than their local cable or telephone company. When, in fact, there is at least one company focusing specifically on bridging the digital divide for seniors through cost-effective Internet service that is backed by the extra support many seniors need. Without a marketing budget of Comcast or Verizon, we attend the industry trade shows but are largely forced to grow through word of mouth. Please spread the word. Not just about SilverFox Broadband, but also about companies like Telikin, Connected Living, It's Never 2 Late, and Presto that are bridging the digital divide in their own unique way.

#2 Challenge: Our number 2 challenge is complacency. Properties and residents complain about the cable or telephone company (as Laurie referenced Verizon's issues), but properties are often slow to change to the better solutions that await. We saw this in student housing 10 years ago and then the tidal wave of users hit, leaving properties ill-equipped and forced to change rapidly. As that 65-74 demographic ages into senior housing, they are going to have the same effect and properties would benefit from adding service now (both operationally and for sales/marketing purposes). If you are at a senior housing community, either as staff or a resident, bring this subject up.

Properties need to be addressing Internet access and doing it CORRECTLY. It makes life easier for everyone (residents & staff) and there are a whole host of companies out there to provide just these services. As Laurie and others wrote, it needs to be:
1) Pervasive and easy to connect to: WiFi in the lobby isn't sufficient, nor is telling the resident to buy it from the local cable co.
2) Cost effective: Offered internally and/or with a 3rd party like SilverFox Broadband.
3) Have extra support available: Connected Living, Telikin, or It's Never 2 late on the device side. SilverFox or your own 24/7 support desk on the Internet access side.
4) Option of an easy access device. iPads are revolutionizing the market. There's also the various senior focused computers (the ones mentioned before and many more).

I'm passionate about this subject, as you can see, and I know you probably are too if you're reading Laurie's blog. The solutions are out there and we just need to spread the word.

Laurie - this is a very interesting article. I am a licensed independent social worker, and I provide counseling/psychotherapy in long-term care facilities. The two facilities I work in do not provide any computer access to their residents. I find this unacceptable in 2012. Having internet access could provide the residents so much enrichment, whether through e-mail to friends and loved ones, skype with family, researching health information, online support groups, shopping without having to leave the facility, etc.

I found your website as I was doing some research in preparation for approaching the facilities about this issue. This is a great site, I have it bookmarked and know I will return to it again.


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