Opinion - Bridging the Gap: Seniors and Tech Accessibility

Submitted by Deb Taylor of Senior Community Services

The Digital Divide

The “digital divide” has become an increasingly critical conversation in today’s ever-shifting tech landscape, especially in wake of the past year and half’s isolating pandemic. The term refers to the gap between those that have access to modern communications technology, and those that do not or have restricted access. This tech includes telephones, computers, personal devices, and internet connectivity.

If our time quarantined has taught us anything, it’s that the ability to effectively navigate digital technology has become a key component of fully participating in society. If we do not make efforts to ensure everyone has access and training, we effectively shut them out from society. In the case of seniors in our community, this inflates an already worrisome trend of isolation and loneliness.

Debunking Myths

There seems to be a perception that when it comes to older adults, they’re simply uninterested or unwilling to learn and adopt the newer technologies so many of the younger population takes for granted.

According to a study by AARP, over the last five years the share of US seniors using technology has increased to 75%. Despite this growth only 25% of seniors report feeling ‘very confident’ in using technology, while 73% say they need help when setting up or using a new electronic device.

These findings suggest that the problem doesn’t lie in an attitude of unwillingness to adapt, but rather the lack of resources that offer senior-focused tech services that combine not only accessibility, affordability, and support, but also training.

Barriers to Entry

Many older adults simply aren’t aware these solutions are available to them, let alone how to access or install them effectively. Simply put, all the technological advancements empowering independence for older adults are useless without knowing how to implement them and being given the proper education.

Other significant barriers to access for lower-income seniors are low speed internet or outdated equipment, or lack of equipment altogether. Rather than perpetuating myths about generational differences, we should be working to bridge the gap by building technical literacy for those who didn’t grow up using the tech so many are naturally accustomed too.

Firsthand Experience

At Senior Community Services, a west metro nonprofit, we’ve seen this need firsthand. We know how important it is for all of us to age in place in our own homes and communities while being able to participate meaningfully, and technology has become an undeniably crucial component of allowing us to do that.

“Many seniors we work have a good understanding of their technology, there are just those one or two little knowledge holes they are trying to get assistance with,” says Mary, a tech support volunteer in Wright County, who works seniors one on one in our technology support program.

We saw the pandemic compound issues of isolation and loneliness to extreme levels. Suddenly technology became a necessity for staying connected to loved ones and community when unable to do so physically. And without access to and knowledge of how to use these tech solutions to connect communities and families, that isolation increased exponentially.

Bridging the Gap

With greater investment in creating accessibility and tailored digital training, technology has the potential to become a powerful tool for reducing loneliness among older adults, empowering us to connect, create, and contribute online as we age. In addition, much of the tech taken for granted by younger generations can significantly improve the ability to age in place as long as possible.

We can work together to bridge the "digital divide" by building community resources that meet people where they are and then provides them with the right level of training to take advantage of the tools keeping us all meaningfully connected.

The evolving conversation around accessibility barriers and technical literacy will be explored in more detail by industry experts at the 6th annual Reimagine Aging Conference “Bridging the Digital Divide: Empowering Senior Independence Using Technology.” The conference, hosted by Senior Community Services, will be held Wednesday, October 6, 2021, 10:00AM-3:30PM in Hopkins, MN, featuring panels and presentations lead by experts from Google, Medica, Cyber Seniors, T-Mobile, PCs For People, OmCare, and more. In an effort to increase accessibility, we’ll have both in-person and virtual attendance options. For event details, visit seniorcommunity.org/rac

Deb Taylor