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Coronavirus Exposes Our Digitally Disadvantaged Older Population

Coronavirus Exposes Our Digitally Disadvantaged Older Population

By Dr. Stephen Golant

It is now well known that older persons, especially those with underlying health conditions, are at higher risk of getting very ill and even dying from the coronavirus (or Covid-19). Older people are told not just to practice good hygiene but also that they should remain at home and avoid contact with others, also known as social distancing.

As a preventive approach to minimize a decline in physical health, this is undoubtedly sound and well-intended advice. But such sheltering-in-place will not be helpful to the mental well-being of otherwise active older persons.  They will often feel trapped in their dwellings and isolated from their outside worlds. The unfortunate consequences for many will be loneliness, fear, anxiety, and helplessness.  If they are homebound for an extended period, they may begin to feel depressed, which in turn can be another cause for a decline in their physical health.

But some older people confined to their homes will inevitably fare better than others.

Maintaining a good quality of life—in both body and mind—during this pandemic crisis will be easier for those who are digitally connected with their outside worlds. These elders feel comfortable connecting with the internet using smartphones, ipads, and laptops, and they regard this technology no less important than being able to read and write. They rely on their online connections for many reasons:

  • Keeping up to date on news and information
  • Ordering merchandise from online vendors
  • Video, voice, and messaging communications with friends and family
  • Accessing library books
  • Arranging for grocery delivery
  • Scrutinizing menus for restaurant takeout
  • Checking and ordering their medical prescriptions
  • Learning about the status of their medical tests
  • Managing their bank accounts
  • Participating in religious services
  • Enjoying all matter of entertainment (e.g., movies)
  • Participating in virtual reality experiences
  • Using wearable technologies (e.g., smartwatches),
  • Getting health counsel with telemedicine and telehealth services

With their online skills, older persons are not just more confident that they can secure their everyday material needs; they also can keep their minds engaged and stimulated and avoid that emptiness that results from sitting at home alone.

As a personal example, my own religious congregation has now canceled all of its on-site services. However, they are still being conducted. The big difference is that participation is only possible for persons who have online video connections.  Sadly, older persons without internet access are deprived of one of their most valued social and spiritual experiences.

Now, we typically focus on income, wealth, education, race, and ethnicity to help us account for the haves and have-nots in our society.  But the coronavirus pandemic is dramatically calling our attention to how our digital user divide depends on chronological age differences.

Based on 2016 data,  Statistics Canada reported that internet use rates among Canadians aged 15 to 64 were over 97%, but only just over 68% for those aged 65 and older. Moreover, some older groups were especially disadvantaged. Although 85% of those ages 65 to 69 were internet users, this was true for only 41% of seniors in the 80 and over age group.

The story is the same in the United States. When the Pew Research Center surveyed Americans at the beginning of 2019, everyone between the ages of 18 to 29 responded that they used the internet, but about 27% of persons age 65 and over never went online. Now it is not all bad news.  Compared to only a few years ago, in both countries, higher shares of seniors are now online users.

Much research has investigated why some older persons more readily adopt new technologies. One reason has to do with where they live.  Internet services are simply less available or reliable in certain parts of rural Canada and the United States. And even in our larger urban areas, some older persons have easier access to senior organizations that offer short courses or tutorials on how to use the internet.

However, a significant part of the explanation is that older persons are differently motivated to use the internet.

Those lagging behind often do not believe that there are sufficient payoffs given the amount of time and energy they must expend to learn these new skills. Adoption behaviors are also accounted for by personality differences.  Some older people feel more confident in their abilities to cope with adversity and will be more open to novel ideas and approaches.  For these seniors, learning about the tremendous potential of the internet will be exciting and enervating; in contrast, other elders will be fearful and resistant to change.

Who older people count on for information and counsel can matter a lot—whether family, friends, neighbors or their physicians and clergy. Using the internet is more likely when the persons they trust hold more positive attitudes toward technological change. These persons also are willing to serve as mentors and will be reliable hand-holders when questions arise.

Whether older persons are favorably disposed to using internet connecting devices such as ipads, laptops, and iphones will also depend on how they appraise these products and services.  They must have friendly designs, be usable without excessive instruction, and be reliable, that is, do not need constant repair or upkeep.  It also helps when older people know there is someone they can personally call and speak to when they run into trouble.  Product manufacturers are only beginning to fully appreciate the distinctive preferences and abilities of older persons that will influence how they evaluate possible purchases.

And finally, older people must be reassured that they will not experience what I call “collateral damages.” However valuable or easy to use they might find a new online technological device or service, older people often are afraid to take the plunge because they rightfully worry that there are bad people out there who will steal their credit cards or personal identities. They also are extremely concerned that confidential information about their lives will be snatched by unscrupulous strangers and organizations.

Coping with this coronavirus pandemic will not be easy for any of us.

However, older people cannot just worry about their physical well-being.  They also must recognize that when they are physically cut off from their outside worlds, they also might feel emotionally isolated and even depressed. Being able to connect online reduces that possibility.

That is why it is now more urgent than ever to eliminate our age-based digital divide.

Stephen M. Golant, Ph.D., is a leading national speaker, author, and researcher on the housing, mobility, transportation, and long-term care needs of older adult populations. He is a Fellow of the Gerontological Society of America, a Fulbright Senior Scholar award recipient, and Professor Emeritus at the University of Florida. He was the recipient of the Richard M. Kalish award from the Gerontological Society of America in recognition of his insightful and innovative publications on aging and life development in the behavioral and social sciences. Dr. Golant has written or edited over 140 papers and books, and his latest, Aging in The Right Place, is published by Health Professions Press. Contact him at golant@ufl.edu

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