It’s a nearly ubiquitous sentiment—for better or worse, our world has become more dependent on the Internet as technology has expanded and the COVID-19 pandemic has made in-person activities dangerous for many. The digital divide, or the gulf between those who have the resources, ability, and understanding to access and utilize technology, has existed in some form since the inception of the World Wide Web. Over the last few years, however, its impacts have increased as newly virtual resources have become difficult to access for those without Internet, and often times, virtual connections may be the only option.
22 million older people lack broadband access at home, evidence of a deep digital divide between generations. This fact alone leaves this group particularly vulnerable to the impacts of life without connectivity, but these effects are further compounded for seniors who are marginalized in other aspects. Older adults without a high school diploma, who make under $25,000 a year, and/or who are Black or Latine are more likely to be offline. As Aging Connected, an initiative to increase connectivity for older adults, argues, the digital divide is a social justice issue.
Without access to the Internet, these older adults are missing out on a lot of today’s life. Many doctor’s offices and government services are switching to virtual or remote delivery. Seniors who need healthcare or receive aid may struggle to access these crucial resources. Increasingly, social networks such as family or support groups, are staying connected through online platforms like social media or video conferencing software. As adults age, combating social isolation becomes crucial, and technology can help them do this. COVID testing and vaccination sites frequently require online registration to access services—older people, one of the groups most vulnerable to the pandemic, need to be able to obtain these services.
Beyond these specific examples, older people are more likely to fall victim to online scams, to share false information online, and to need assistive technology that relies on digital knowledge. Strategies to combat the digital divide must encompass broadband infrastructure, internet affordability and accessibility, and media and digital literacy.
Strategies to Address the Digital Divide
While there isn’t one way to approach the generational digital divide, older people and their caregivers can get plugged in through an initiative that works for them. The following are some strategies to combat the digital divide depending on one’s need.
Acquiring Internet at Home
When it comes to getting and staying connected, the Affordable Connectivity Program (or ACP, formerly known as Emergency Broadband Benefit) can help contribute up to $30 a month to internet service for qualifying households. Their website can be used to check if you qualify or if your current internet provider works with the program.
For help navigating the ACP or other subsidized programs, Aging Connected offers an online search tool and a toll-free number (877-745-1930) to help older people find low-cost Internet programs in their area.
Obtaining a Computer
There are a few national organizations and local networks that work to provide older people with computers. Computers With Causes has an online application form to receive a computer, while PCs for People works to provide refurbished technology to low-income households.
Some local organizations can also help seniors get online, such as senior community centers and libraries with computer labs or check-out programs for tech. These will vary depending on one’s location, but they are often a great resource when seeking out access to computers!
Learning to Use Technology
If an older adult has access to the Internet, but struggles to feel comfortable using these tools, there are also organizations that work on digital and media literacy. For older adults looking to use their technology more to build their skills, combat social isolation, or learn new things, these seminars and discussion groups are a great start:
- Cyber Seniors provides free tech support and training for older adults.
- Oasis Connections has a variety of programs available for purchase, ranging from general computer skills to internet safety, but also offers free virtual classes once a month and several free resources on their website.
- AARP also offers Senior Planet, a free resource for virtual classes on a variety of topics.
- Caregivers or others interested in increasing digital literacy for older adults may also be interested in their partner program or instructor training.
Just like any new thing, computers and the digital world can be difficult to navigate at first. However, it’s essential for older people to access the Internet and build their online skills. Digital literacy and inclusion is within grasp for aging adults, helping to ensure they stay involved in their social networks, receive adequate medical care, and continue to learn new things.