Getting Seniors Online – Challenges and Opportunities

Last month the Benton Foundation and Connected Living co-hosted a day-long examination of the challenges related to broadband adoption by low-income elderly consumers. Getting Seniors Online highlighted the work of several projects targeting low-income seniors funded by the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), administered by the National Telecommunications & Information Agency (NTIA) at the U.S. Department of Commerce. We also looked at one non-BTOP funded project in Miami which serves a multicultural community.

There is a sense of urgency among BTOP grantees, as federal stimulus funding is coming to an end. Sustaining the work and applying “lessons learned” will help to continue the momentum created by these federal investments. The low-income elderly are among our most vulnerable populations and least likely to enjoy the benefits of online communications. The latest data from the Pew Research Center indicates that more than 50 percent of people over the age of 65 are now online. Statistics, however, do not always paint a complete picture.

Here’s a sampling of what we learned during our convening.

  • Barriers to adoption for the elderly include anxiety. Projects reported that many seniors fear that they’ll break the computer or otherwise do something wrong.
  • The elderly experience greater socio-economic disparities than other age groups.
  • Effective approaches consider age tiers, rather than lumping seniors into a “65 years+” category.
  • Isolation – contrary to popular opinion, use of computers and the Internet by the elderly helps fight off isolation, rather than increase it.
  • Trust issues: public libraries are cited as trusted places for seniors, even in rural area. Danger in budget cuts
  • It is critical to include the elderly in planning successful program: “Do with, not for.”
  • Seniors make great peer coaches – something to consider for the proposed Digital Literacy Corps.

Benton will continue this dialogue and explore further policy implications for such efforts as the FCC’s modernization of the Lifeline program, which provides subsidies to low-income individuals for telephone service. Meanwhile, here is our report on Getting Seniors Online.