How Technology Is Isolating Our Elderly and How to Fix It

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Closing the technology education gap for the elderly is a necessity that needs to be more of a priority.

The coronavirus pandemic exposed a plethora of issues about American life but one in particular is how the elderly are often left behind in an ever-changing, technologically advancing world.

The so-called “Tech Gap” or “Digital Divide” between our elder adults and those a part of younger generations has grown and continues to do so. 

Experts in a 2021 Pew Research survey conducted in conjunction with Elon University about what the world will look like by 2025 post-pandemic — 86% said it will be more tech driven.

“Most said they expect that the evolution of digital life will continue to feature both positives and negatives,” Pew Research Center said.

The struggle to get vaccines when they were first available nationwide demonstrated the difficulties in a digital world. Nearly every state has required citizens who are eligible to book appointments online, but tension emerged as some elderly Americans don’t know how to use a computer or have access to one.

“They don’t understand that grandma and grandpa don’t even have an email address, much less a [smart]phone,” Dr. Jerry Abraham, a doctor distributing vaccines in Los Angeles, vented to CBS News in February. “Those should not be the barriers that stand between you and a vaccine.”

That same month, “CBS Sunday Morning” contributor David Sedaris shared his gripes in an editorial on the long-running magazine show about how a trip to his local Apple store to fix his broken laptop allowed him to see first-hand the divide between younger and older people, and where he fits in.

“No one was discourteous, just patronizing. Which I understand, I was young once,” the 64-year-old humorist said. “There are a lot of people my age with computer problems so how about a withered Apple store. The logo will be like the current one but shriveled, maybe with a worm poking its head out.”

Sedaris is not alone in this and as the gap widens between consumers, technology and the people creating it needs to learn to treat people better.

All That You Can’t Leave Behind

At this point, home computers and smartphones are an integral part of many people's everyday lives, but not all who are a part of the Silent Generation, those born between 1927 and 1946, have kept up with the latest technological trends. According to a 2019 story in Tech Crunch, one-third of adults 65 and older say they have never used the internet and half of those polled did not have internet access at home.

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Alex George, the editor-in-chief of Popular Mechanics, pointed out to Inside Edition Digital that sci-fi writer William Gibson once said, “The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed.”

A 2019 Pew Research survey found that 96% of Americans owned some kind of cell phone, with 53% of senior citizens (those 65 years and older) owning smartphones. Another 39% of senior citizens said they owned a cellphone but not a smartphone. By comparison, 99% folks between the ages of 18 and 29 and 30 and 49 had a cellphone. Ninety-six percent of those in the 18 to 29 age group had a smartphone and 92% of those in the 30 to 49 age group had a smartphone.

George explained that advancing technology is often marketed to young people to lock them in as lifelong customers.

“If you get them early enough and they're loyal, then you can get that they always want to buy Apple for the rest of their life, that's a lot of money you can make off of that, and youth has a lot of things that everybody wants, social connections, new experiences, all that kind of thing,” he told Inside Edition Digital.

Some elderly Americans who spoke to Inside Edition Digital said they felt they are lagging behind in technology, a feeling that's been heightened by the pandemic, with many social interactions moving into the digital space. 

Dorae Hill, 84, lives in San Francisco and throughout the pandemic has had to further acclimate to advancing forms of technology because of such social isolation and lack of interaction.

“Instead of going out for a walk, and go and get a cup of coffee, and meeting other people my own age, and sitting, and talking, and gossip like we should do, you stay home and you play games. The damn virus though has caused us to stay in,” the spunky grandmother said.

For the last two years, Hill has been learning how to use an iPad after she was given one thanks to programs like Meals on Wheels in conjunction with Tech Allies and Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly-San Francisco. Through the same program, someone FaceTimes with her to show her how to use the tablet. Hill has also been forced to set up an email account, but so far has been afraid to use it.

Hill says she lives on a fixed income and relies on programs like Social Security and food stamps to get by. She cannot afford to buy a computer or any other gadgets. Trying to adapt to change, especially during a pandemic, has not been easy, especially when the previous systems she relied on worked just fine, Hill said. “[The] older generation has the old methods in their head and a lot of the old methods are better than the computer,” she said.

The people left behind in the digital divide are often overlooked as technological advances are celebrated.

“I think as companies chase convenience and speed, if you're not able to participate in whatever that goal is, then you're not going to be able to access it the way that other people will,” George said. “It's expensive to be able to participate in all these things.”

Generational attitudes toward the ways in which we communicate also affect our perceptions of how important it is we obtain that next level of technology.

George gave the example of how now it is easy to just not pick up phone calls because you can see who is calling whereas generations prior would just naturally gravitate towards just answering the landline phone at home.

“It’s a very different attitude to those things,” he said. “I think even just those etiquette things, that's pretty telling of how even 10 years of a difference in age will change how you feel about interacting with other people through, and what devices you use.”

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Closing the Technology Education Gap for the Elderly

As the digital divide widens there are organizations that are trying to close it as best they can by helping those who are home technologically and internet unsavvy.

Organizations like Tech Allies, AARP and Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) are working to bridge the tech gap as best they can.

One organization that is helping senior citizens is the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes (OLLI) which allows people 50 and older to go back to school, giving them the opportunity to enroll in a myriad courses, including technology.

OLLI has 124 independent college or university institutes across the country, according to Executive Director Steve Thaxon. He said there is at least “one Osher Institute in each state, collectively serving more than 200,000 student members, including satellite campuses and multi-location Institutes, the network covers 394 towns and cities all across the U.S.”

Two OLLI student members from different parts of the country spoke to Inside Edition Digital about their experiences learning during the pandemic, noting it’s never too late to learn something new.

Eneda Bourne, 75, a retired teacher from South Carolina, said while transferring classes to Zoom from in person learning has not been ideal, she’s grateful she can continue with her education, as well as keep some of the social aspects of the classroom going.

“You don't stop playing, you don't give up because you're growing old, you keep going,” she said.

She said that she and her grandkids had similar experiences learning on Zoom during the pandemic, but was glad to continue working toward advancing her knowledge. 

Bourne equated her experiences with OLLI and learning new technology to a high-speed train.

“A train is coming into the station slowly, you get on there, it's not coming to a full stop. You hop on that train, and when you get on that train, you put on your belt, your seatbelt, whatever. ... And if you can stay on that train, the joy at the end of that train is fabulous,” she said. “But some people can't make the journey. It's too difficult. ‘I can't take this speed.’ So, with technology moving so fast, so quickly, you have to hang in there and give it your all. Don't let go. Because if you let go, you might as well get off the train. And if you get off the train, you are out of the loop with life, and with society, and with your grandchildren, and with your adult children.”

For 80-year-old retired doctor Ira Mickenberg, he said he joined OLLI to brush up on subjects he had long neglected, like poetry and writing. During the pandemic, the Connecticut resident also used Zoom to attend classes, but noted some of the social aspects of being physically in a school were missed.

“Just personally, to me, it was the learning aspect, not so much social, whereas people who were more interested in the social aspect, they had become more isolated because of the COVID problems,” he admitted.

Thaxon, OLLI’s executive director, said that when the pandemic started, “many members needed to be trained and become adept at these technologies. Some did not have the interest or ability to do so. But those who have made the ‘pivot’ are largely thrilled with their growing ability to stay engaged socially and remain lifelong learners while they wait for the chance to return to in-person classes and events.”

Mickenberg says that he believes technology can leave people behind if they don’t try to help themselves in learning something new.

“I'm always interested in learning and find it a challenge. And I was always interested in that so that it was just more of a challenge and I just go and learn it. Other people resist change and so yeah, and they get left behind,” he added. “Older people just fall back on what they're used to. And so they're not as anxious to learn something new.”

George says that while some members of older generations resist learning new technologies, technology is oftentimes not marketed toward those individuals to begin with.

“Tech, especially phones and laptops, promise a lot of things that will appeal to teenagers and 20-somethings ... and that is relatives and your social group through certainly on an app or social media, or productivity, benefits for school or for whatever entry job that you're doing. It's pretty aggressive, and we kind of know that they're ultimately these distraction machines a lot of the time, but all that's pretty powerful motivation too, that somebody younger will have to adopt something new,” he said.

Despite the feeling of loneliness and isolation that technology can bring on older generations, it has done some good.

Mickenberg has used Zoom to spend time with friends during the pandemic. Since he is not on social media, he finds this to be the best way to interact with friends.

Hill said the pandemic was the driving force for she and her estranged daughter to reconnect. She’s used FaceTime to see her grandchildren and daughter.

And technology can also help stimulate one’s mind. “I think the modern technologies keeps that brain moving,” Bourne said. “The refreshing part for me.” She added that once she can go back to socializing in person she plans on striking a balance between her technology usage and human interaction.

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Fixing a Hole

While efforts are being undertaken to help close the technology gap between generations, some wonder if it will ever fully close.

Hill’s outlook on the situation was grim, saying it will close “after all of us oldies die off.”

“That's the only way it'll completely close, where everybody has been born and raised on all this technology,” she said.

Companies are trying to find ways to create a balance between the generations in order to make devices easier to use for anyone of nearly any age.

“Usually what happens is, if you can build something that will be able to be used by a toddler or a senior citizen, everybody else in the middle gets taken care of. It's intuitive for both of those demographics,” George added. “So ultimately, there's ways to package it that make it palatable and hopefully desirable for companies that are building these kinds of things.”

George says that companies should continue to provide customer service through phone calls so people can speak to another human, as well as chatbots, “just to have more channels of attraction.”

"Like the phrase, 'you can't teach an old dog new tricks.' It's just the idea, as we age we're less likely to try new things, you just get more comfortable,” Mickenberg said. “It's threatening. Learning in a sense can be threatening. Although I don't feel that way, but I think that is part of the aging process for most people.”

Bourne echoed Mickenberg’s sentiment. “I don't want technology to dismiss seniors ... because a lot of them want to learn, a lot of them want to stay on top of things, a lot of them want to live and feel comfortable saying, ‘I can do this. I can do that.’”

George also said that simplicity in devices and shedding any ego when approaching a new technology — will be key in bridging the gap. “There's no shame in just straight-up googling a very simple question,” he said. “Don't be afraid to ask questions about those kinds of things.”

“So you've got to spend the time and energy to learn the technology,” Mickenberg added. “And then it becomes something to help you, rather than end you.”

Bourne says it all comes with “baby steps” and gradually seniors won’t be so intimidated by technology if they use it more.

“It's like that train ride came to your stop, and you can bounce off the train and say, ‘Hey, I got this. I got it,’” she said.

Every quarter, the award-winning journalists at Inside Edition Digital dig into a specific topic, going deeper than daily news cycles allow to bring you The Issue, a series of articles and videos on a specific subject. For more of The Issue 3, where we're diving into generational change, click here.