It’s More Than Mere Access

The newly released Pew Research Center’s report, “Older Adults and Technology Use,” shows substantial forward movement in Internet use and broadband adoption by America’s senior population. However, given the increasingly important role that this 21st century technology plays in all of our lives, it is troubling that 41 percent of seniors still do not use the Internet (compared to 14 percent of all adults), and that 53 percent do not have broadband access where they live (all adults: 30 percent). The Benton Foundation has been working with Senior Service America, Inc. (SSAI) to address the challenges of bringing senior non-Internet users online. This latest Pew research reaffirms what we’re finding in our work.

SSAI conducted a two-year Digital Inclusion Initiative that helped seniors learn to use computers and the Internet. By training 555 participants of its Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) as peer coaches in using software developed by Generations on Line, the Digital Inclusion Initiative (DII) helped more than 26,000 seniors through the end of 2011. SCSEP peer coaches provided free one-on-one assistance at 355 community-based sites in 16 states, using a non-classroom style, self-paced, peer coaching approach that proved to be very successful with seniors.

Improved Morale and Attitudes

Pew reports that once seniors take the step to go online, 71 percent do so every day. The percentage is even higher for those seniors using smart phones. Clearly, seniors who use the Internet regularly see it as a positive element in their lives. Nearly four-fifths (79 percent) of seniors who use the Internet agree with the statement that “people without Internet access are at a real disadvantage…”

This reaffirms what SSAI Research Manager Bob Harootyan found in his analysis of the responses by some 10,000 DII learners who voluntarily completed initial and final questionnaires during the coaching sessions. He presented his findings in a workshop that we conducted at the 2014 Aging in America conference, emphasizing that the learners not only gained confidence in using computers, they also gained a stronger sense of well-being.

“DII graduates exhibited statistically significant improvement in ‘comfort level with computers’ and in ‘confidence in using the Internet,’” Harootyan said. “In addition, as measured by 10 separate indicators, completion of the DII coaching is significantly associated with improved mental and emotional well-being for a substantial proportion of DII graduates. Pair-wise analysis of pre/post responses showed improvement in morale and attitudes for significant proportions of learners.”

For example, the percentage of DII graduates who said they were “very satisfied” with their lives today grew from 18.3 percent in their initial survey to 29.7 percent in their final one. The percentage of “somewhat satisfied” grew from 38 to 43.8 percent.

Harootyan also reported learners who started out with the most pessimistic attitudes and lowest morale showed the greatest improvement by the end of the DII coaching sessions. For example, 69 percent of the most pessimistic learners changed to a more positive response to “I contribute to others’ well-being,” compared to 25 percent of all learners. Nearly identical changes occurred in response to “My life has a sense of purpose” and “I feel useful most of the time.”

Need for Assistance

The Pew data show that 77 percent of seniors say they would need help in learning how to use a new digital device. For the 41 percent of seniors who are non-Internet users, this includes basic computers, never mind smart phones!

Based on the DII experience, Senior Service America and Benton are exploring ways to reach this 41 percent cohort. We have been conducting group and individual sessions called “A Taste of the Internet” in partnership with county agencies and organizations in Montgomery County, Maryland. Our approach is to first identify community collaborators who recognize the importance of bringing seniors online. We then hold an introductory ‘tasting’ session for a group of new users, followed by a series of one-on-one sessions with those seniors who are interested in learning more.

What we learned is that the best approach is also the most time-consuming. Individual attention and assistance are important but difficult to provide. Some of the seniors at a local low-income residence, for example, have language barriers, manual dexterity problems, limited access to computers, etc., that hinder their ability to move to Internet independence. But, as the Pew results indicate, most of them are motivated to become computer competent once they realize what the Internet offers. We also realized it was necessary to limit our one-on-one coaching/tasting to five sessions, after which the senior should receive regular computer training. We’re developing solutions to these challenges in order to create a general model for reaching out to offline seniors. We will share our findings as our work proceeds. The Pew report gives us hope that we’re headed in the right direction.