These are difficult times for all of us, as we experience social distancing and an extreme disruption to our everyday way of life. There is no demographic group, however, that is experiencing a greater isolation at this time than our seniors. The internet is a bridge to the world, allowing us to continue to work, learn, and connect with our friends and family, all while remaining safe in our homes.
While COVID-19 has highlighted the deficiencies in broadband availability in the homes of our school-age kids around the country, the absence of a broadband connection for our older adults is equally concerning. Lack of internet access sets the stage for growing isolation and harm to our seniors across the country.
Although broadband adoption has increased among those 65 and older in recent years, there is still a significant gap. The last survey conducted about two years ago by Pew Research revealed that over half of those 65+ have a broadband connection at home, and about 67 percent use the internet. While we can assume that these numbers have increased slightly, indications are that there is still a considerable gap in access and adoption among seniors.
We can’t overlook the fact that a significant percentage of older adults connect to the internet on a computer at a senior center, library or community center. With the current state of the pandemic, these community services are closed to the public – and therefore the internet is closed to those seniors.
It is common knowledge that the adoption of other tech devices does not adequately close this digital divide for the aging community. A recent national survey by AARP, 2020 Tech Trends of the 50+, provided a comprehensive view of tech adoption and the use of everything from smartphones to home assistants and smart home technology. While adoption of these devices has been significant among age groups 50-59, and even within ages 60-69, it drops dramatically in the 70+ age categories.
Even the fortunate seniors with broadband at home and devices at hand aren’t “home free.” Many rely on family members, friends and neighbors to provide technical assistance when something goes awry; that support is shut down as well.
As we all know, a broadband connection provides an opportunity to connect to family and friends, to enhance our entertainment, to shop for groceries and other essentials without leaving our homes, to check national and community news, and to search for the latest health information. For an older individual, life without the internet in normal times is isolating; during this pandemic it could be life-threatening.
While we have rightly focused on the digital divide impacting school-age children who are unable to participate in remote learning during this crisis, it is also important that we understand the similar critical needs of the older community. Thankfully, there are efforts being made to bridge this gap, including companies extending free and low-cost broadband services and other creative programs to customers, including the aging community.
The fight against COVID-19 most definitely takes a global village. Now, more than ever, we need more focus on our older community, with programs and assistance to make sure they have access to affordable high-speed broadband. We can’t afford to leave anyone behind – or unconnected.
Debra Berlyn is the president of Consumer Policy Solutions, a firm centered on developing public policies addressing the interests of consumers and the marketplace, and is executive director of the Project to Get Older Adults onLine (Project GOAL).