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Digital Equity: Supporting Social Connectivity for Older Adults

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Older adult services providers in King County demonstrated their resilience in the past 15 months as they moved programming online, instituted phone-based wellness checks, and provided other creative means of maintaining social connectivity during the COVID-19 pandemic. To assist with efforts promoting social connectivity and digital equity, Aging and Disability Services (ADS) partnered with senior centers and senior housing providers to get tablets and hotspots to clients who need them. This work was highlighted in the December issue of AgeWise. As we continue to transition to post-pandemic life, our work not only continues but becomes part of the broader effort to improve digital equity.

Sylvia, 76, is an older woman who benefited from receiving a tablet in 2020. She has attended the Auburn Senior Activity Center for several years. When COVID hit, she joined virtual classes over the phone. Unfortunately, she was unable to see other participants because she did not have a smartphone. This limited her ability to interact. Sylvia was one of the first people to sign up for the tablet program. She also participated in training provided by the senior center and learned how to use Zoom. She has been able to participate in a support group and social activities. The tablet increased Sylvia’s participation and led to new friendships.

“The pandemic has moved so much more online and shined a huge light on how important it is to ensure that all of us, especially older adults, have what’s needed to stay engaged and connected,” said David Keyes, the City of Seattle’s Digital Equity Program Manager. “It’s become a digital necessity to have and help people obtain affordable and sufficient Internet, working computer devices, technology skills and the support necessary to use them well.”

Data bears out the importance of digital equity to older adults. Surveys conducted by the City of Seattle and King County have shown that older adults are less likely to have access to broadband (high-speed Internet), devices, and digital skills. Aging and Disability Services and our community partners are working to address these gaps in several ways, including distribution of additional devices and getting the word out about the new Emergency Broadband Benefit that will help more families gain access to the internet, at least temporarily. (See also “Emergency Broadband Benefit Helps People Pay for Internet and More” in the May 2021 issue of AgeWise King County.)

Even with a device and a connection, a lack of digital skills prevents many older people from fully utilizing technology to connect to services and social networks. AARP recognized the importance of digital skills and joined with Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) to increase emphasis and roll out new projects in local communities, possibly including a project in Washington state.

TechConnect Washington has established a community helpdesk to provide digital navigation, which is available online (click here) or by calling toll-free 800-216-1132. In 2021, ADS is continuing a 2020 pilot project that connects volunteer digital skills coaches with older adults. We will evaluate this approach and determine next steps in partnership with other agencies that are increasingly engaged in this work.

Advocacy efforts for improved digital equity are also ramping up. Two recent examples are the new Connect Washington Coalition that advocates for improvements at the state level, and the Digital Equity Act, co-sponsored by United States Senator Patty Murray from Washington state.

As planners develop new approaches to address social isolation and loneliness—which include some “outside the box” approaches such as animatronic pets—the importance of digital equity for older adults has become clear. Partnerships will continue to be crucial to our success in this area in 2021 and beyond.

Jon Morrison WintersContributor Jon Morrison Winters is a senior planner at Aging and Disability Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle-King County.

Posted in Technology