These are challenging and uncertain times for all of us, with extended stay at home requirements changing the way we live our everyday lives. Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, broadband and the technology devices connected to the network have been significant game-changers. However, our nation’s older adult community’s struggle has been even greater at this time because they are on the wrong side of the digital divide with many lacking access to broadband.
While many of us are experiencing some level of isolation, older adults can ill afford the increased negative effects it can cause. Researchers have found that social isolation and the subsequent feelings of loneliness can be lethal. The AARP Foundation put some perspective on this when it announced that social isolation can cause similar health effects to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Connecting with loved ones over the internet can help mitigate the feelings of isolation and loneliness.
A striking difference in the lives of two older adults best represents how broadband can enrich their daily experience during this pandemic. Our first older adult is a 96-year-old woman living in an independent living facility. Before COVID-19, she was extremely social and engaged in her community, having frequent meals around town with her friends and family. Now, she is confined to her apartment, has meals delivered, can only leave to walk in a defined area around the back of the building, and only interacts with a limited number of workers in her building. She doesn’t have broadband, and her only “device” is her old wireless phone, used to connect by voice to loved ones.
The next older individual is a 78-year-old man living in his own home, retired, but still continuing to do some consulting work that has him chatting throughout the day with colleagues on Skype. He’s comfortable on his home computer (with high-speed broadband access) and on his smartphone, which has Bluetooth connectivity directly to his hearing aids. During this pandemic, he spends more time video chatting with his extended family and playing games with his grandkids over an SMS platform. These older individuals provide us with a perspective of the strikingly different sides of the digital divide; the older adults who can benefit from the digital world and those that cannot.
And these benefits of broadband technology are great for older adults during normal times, but now more than ever, the technology provides an opportunity to reduce isolation, connect to family and friends, and obtain critically important information. For older individuals during this pandemic, the broadband connection allows someone to shop for essentials, stay up-to-date on important news, have telehealth appointments with their doctors, actually “see” their kids and grandkids daily with video chats, fill their hours with entertainment by streaming shows on their screens, play bridge and other games, attend family video parties, and even take exercise classes online. The technology provides an opportunity to bring some normalcy into the home during a difficult time.
There are also more advanced tech devices that some older adults have added in their homes that are quite beneficial to their health and welfare. Wearable devices, such as fitness trackers, encourage you to get out and walk and track our steps or take online fitness classes indoors. These devices typically link to smart health apps that may also monitor blood pressure and heart rate. Smart home technology that offers advanced safety and security features include smart thermostats and video “doorbells.” While video doorbells have become extremely popular with all homeowners, there’s a great advantage for an older adult to see who is at the door and speak to that person without having to even leave the bedroom. According to a recent national survey by AARP, 2020 Tech Trends of the 50+ , ownership of all of these tech devices is growing among older adults.
While those who are online are enjoying the opportunity to connect with loved ones and search for information, users need to watch out for scams that are on the rise during the pandemic. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns consumers that there are a multitude of Coronavirus scams online, as well as scammers calling our home with robocalls. Check out the FTC’s website for more information on the types of scams and what can be done to avoid them when online: ftc.gov/coronavirus/scams-consumer-advice Everyone can safely enjoy the benefits of the internet, but we just need to be aware of the scams that are out there today both online and offline.
With all the great benefits a broadband connection provides for older individuals, it is critical that we close the digital divide for this community. It is particularly important during this pandemic that our older population stay informed, have the opportunity to connect to their community and loved ones, and reduce the impact of their isolation. The positive benefits of technology are great, and it’s important that the network reach all of our nation’s older adults.