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The ‘New Normal’ for Many Older Adults

The ‘New Normal’ for Many Older Adults

The ‘new normal’ for many senior adults is speaking to Friendship Lines, a 24-hour hotline and check-up service established by many non-profit organizations

Already, moving lectures and happy hours onto video chat screens has become almost a social distancing cliché. But for millions of older adults, many of whom are particularly susceptible to loneliness, being able to navigate the vast sea of online resources — beyond just Zoom — can be central to their resilience.

For many, the crisis has motivated them to learn and expand their use of these technologies for the first time. And given the uncertainty of when and how the pandemic will end, these skills may be crucial to their process of adjusting to whatever the “new normal” maybe — especially if it’s one where older people are encouraged to continue some physical distancing for longer than their younger counterparts.

Still, the coronavirus crisis and its ripple effects are borne differently by people of different classes, races, geographies and personalities within generations. Some older adults are afraid they’ll live out their final years in fear and with limited mobility; others have embraced their new lifestyle and gained a greater appreciation for the connections that matter.

Studies show more seniors than ever have adopted smartphones — 42%, according to Pew — and 67% say they have internet access. At the same time, only a quarter of adults over 65 say they feel confident about using electronics to go online.

Nearly 13.8 million Americans over the age of 65 — about 28% of that population — live by themselves, according to 2017 estimates from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Surveys from organizations like AARP and Kaiser Family Foundation suggest that anywhere between 33% and 43% of all older adults in the U.S. experience loneliness either sometimes or frequently. The lack of social connection and brain stimulation is associated with higher risks of physical health problems like heart disease, dementia and even premature death, according to a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences.

Shelter-in-place edicts have the potential to exacerbate the loneliness crisis among older adults, who are now unable to see families or attend social gatherings. For those in nursing homes, especially, the isolation is compounded by far higher risk of catching a deadly case of the virus — across the U.S., about one in 10 nursing homes has reported a case, and Kaiser Family Foundation data shows more than 10,000 people in long-term care facilities have died. Strict bans on visitors mean that millions of older people in nursing homes and other retirement communities have been unable to see their adult children or grandchildren in person.

Tech as a Recourse

When states began announcing their isolation orders, organizers behind the digital platform Senior Planet started making calls to more than 2,000 seniors in the six cities where they operate, asking them what they needed during the social isolation period. The responses ran the gamut: They wanted tutorials on Zoom, sure, but also on everything else from gaming programs to telemedicine to ride-sharing apps. They wanted to stay engaged with the outside world, too, through virtual social clubs and fitness classes, even online dating.

“These are communities of older adults who are taking charge of the impact of physical distancing — educating themselves and transforming and reinventing themselves to be able to meet the moment,” said Charlotte Dickson, the executive director of Village Movement California, an umbrella organization of villages in the state. “And that is such a different narrative than the narrative around ‘victims of Covid dying.’”

As a result of this online pivot, the villages have been able to reach more people who wouldn’t otherwise show up to physical meetings, even before the lockdowns started. Senior meditation groups which once had 12 to 15 in-person attendees each week; now that it’s moved online, 25 people sign-on. Zoom Tai Chi is popular, as is improv class; the chapter’s LGBTQ circle has doubled in size.

The advantages extend beyond socializing. At Senior Planet, tech trainings have been among its most popular virtual offerings: everything from shopping on Amazon and making person-to-person mobile payments to accessing podcasts.

Since mastering Zoom, many needy seniors have diligently been learning how to apply for SNAP benefits online and use telemedicine portals — not for themselves but enabling other seniors as well to receive the benefits fo this program. herself, but so that she can teach others.

Google has also made most of their programs and portals accessible to enable many challenged seniors to access the internet.

The digital divide as a social divide

One recipe for beating social isolation in old age is having an internet connection, a device, and a patient teacher. Pew surveys suggest, though, that while older Americans have become more digitally connected over the years — some through community access or on their phones — the digital revolution still leaves about half of seniors without broadband access at home. Adoption is especially limited among those who are older, and those who earn less income. That means for some, the larger challenge isn’t learning a new app; it’s having the tools to do it in the first place.

Some cities are trying to fill the gap. With a $5 million investment from T-Mobile, New York City has started handing out computer tablets, along with a year’s worth of free mobile internet service, to public housing residents age 62 and older — part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ongoing “Internet Master Plan” to close the city’s digital divide. “COVID-19 has made clear to all that broadband is a public health necessity too,” John Paul Farmer, chief technology officer of New York City, said in an email to CityLab. “For people to access essential services online, they first have to be online. It’s just that simple.” The city has also teamed up with the group Older Adults Technology Services to offer device set-up and tech assistance to recipients.

California is partnering with Google to give out 10,000 hotspots to people in need — not just seniors but also families with kids. In other states, cities have set up Wi-Fi hotspots in the parking lots of schools and public libraries, where seniors have previously turned for tech assistance. In fact, as libraries closed their doors last month, the American Library Association recommended that they leave their Wi-Fi on for residents to access from outside the buildings. The private sector, too, has launched some new initiatives, like in Washington, where Comcast is opening up 65,000 public hotspots.

But it’s not always resources that are the problem: It can be hard for seniors to adopt new technology that wasn’t designed for them. And the hard reality is that tech cannot replace ‘touch’ which is much-needed resource during these debilitating times.