There are myriad resources available to older adults online meant to help improve their access and use of technology. However, many older adults find it extremely difficult and frustrating to take that first step and become connected online.
Another big problem is that many older adults indeed have the interest to be on the internet – to order less expensive medications or meet new friends – but they live alone or have nobody to teach them the ropes. Without the help or encouragement, older citizens are left to become extinct online, losing a wonderful opportunity to break free of dependence on others or from feelings of isolation.
While advancements in communication technologies are constantly being improved, released, and made more accessible to the public they do not always translate well into an older adult lifestyle. In fact, there are entire websites dedicated to connecting older adults to the current technology boom. Senior Planet is dedicated to maximizing the use of technology to enhance how people age; Oasis Everywhere– assists older adults through lifelong learning, health, and volunteering and Cyber Seniors, a site where older adults can go to learn how to connect with their peers. Tech companies are developing products geared towards older adults like the tablet, GrandPad®, and smartphone, Jitterbug Smart3 with their unique needs in mind. However, similar to the horse-to-water cliché- you can lead a horse to a computer but you can count on the horse figuring it out alone.
However, Just because the number of communication outlets is constantly growing doesn’t mean they are for everyone.
In 2021 the Pew Research Center noted 92% of older adults have a cell phone, but only 61% of users 65 and older possess a smartphone compared to 100% and 96%, respectively of those aged 18 to 29. While usage is slowly increasing over time, it is critical to not abandon more primitive forms of communication like the old telephone yet or risk overlooking a majority of the population who are older than 65 until this gap is bridged. My own 30-year journey working with older adults confirms this. As an undergraduate teaching assistant, I started teaching older adults how to use a computer and then how to access online classes.
I could never have imagined three decades later so many amazingly savvy older adults might still prefer a good old-fashioned paper handout and/or telephone number to seek new information. We must look at teaching how to access technology the same as we do teaching a foreign language. It must be important and bring value to the learner or it will not be learned.
But where to start? How do we reach those not seeking to be found?
People often trust their healthcare providers. On average older adults see their doctor at least four times per year not to mention all the other allied health professionals they may need along the way including social workers, physical therapists, and dietitians to name a few. If infrastructure was built to fund time to teach older adults this knowledge it would lead to having good health and well-being and living independently, the number one and number two goals of older adults, according to a 2021 survey on Aging in America.
Let’s start with Medicare.
Currently, the national health insurance program serves as a beacon for many seniors looking for help to stay healthy. Imagine if Medicare offered online courses and tech support services for older adults.
Am I suggesting that helping older adults jump online could help them live longer and more quality lives? Yes!
Today, online is a big piece of the puzzle for living healthy at any age and older adults are missing out at their own peril.
To be sure, offering initial in-person services followed by online training would increase health care costs initially. However, if we could train older adults on how to access less expensive resources, such as web-based health education tools and resources and online support groups, we could potentially improve their overall wellbeing, resulting in reduced usage of the costliest resources, such as hospital stays, long term care admissions and even the number of medications an older adult may need.
The endgame of healthcare should be prevention.
About the Author
Kristin Gustashaw is a Clinical Dietitian at Rush University Medical Center and a Fellow with The OpEd Project.