Crossing the Digital Divide at 55+

Imagine being banished from the Internet.

No more emails from friends or siblings or children sending digital-camera pictures of a grandchild born that very morning.

No more reading that newspaper online that keeps you informed about what’s happening in your hometown on the other coast, or maybe even on another continent.

No more going straight from the doctor’s office to search the Web for information about a newly-prescribed medicine.

And no more hunting for jobs increasingly listed only online.

You’d be stranded on the wrong side of the “the digital divide.” And because that’s exactly where many older adults are today, we created and implemented what we call our Digital Inclusion Initiative (DII) in 2009 with funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

From 2009 and 2012, 550 of our Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) participants assisted over 25,000 adults—most of them 55 and older and from all walks of life—in taking those first steps on their world-changing journey across the digital divide.

Here’s their story as they were assisting their peers.

Using Generations on Line, an online computer tutorial designed for older adult learners, our SCSEP participant “peer coaches” are there—in public settings including libraries, senior centers, faith-based organizations and community action agencies—to provide patience and understanding when their “new learners” struggle, often for the very first time, to use a computer mouse, send and receive emails, and do online website searches.

Many DII peer coaches and new learners have become agents of change, both in their own lives and those of others. They’re spreading the word that we are never too old to learn something new, especially something that opens up a wondrous universe of communication, resources and pleasures.

And we’re excited to learn that DII is literally transforming many of these new learners. I see their lives change in front of me, says Patrick Carew, a DII peer coach with Senior Citizens Employment & Training, Inc., our subgrantee in Eau Claire, Wis.

Patrick describes what peer coaching means to him in an essay that took first place in a contest celebrating Older Americans Month (May), sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Aging.

New learner Donna Morgan overcame discomfort with the computer mouse in her first coaching session with Willie Ford, a SCSEP participant with our subgrantee Alexian Brothers Seniors Neighbors in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Donna, who recently turned 71, now searches online for material to use in her Bible study classes—and she just sent a first email to her son. His response was he’s so proud of me, she says, and that made me feel like being on the computer is going to be a lot of fun. It’s a whole new adventure and I’m very excited. I just wish I’d started sooner.

But Donna is a youngster compared to other DII learners. As of mid-August, 2010, our coaches have worked with 36 learners who are 90 and older—including Helen Belliveau, 93, assisted by a peer coach with Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Worcester, one of our Massachusetts subgrantees, and 91-year-old Martha Webb, guided by a peer coach with the Alexian Brothers in Chattanooga.

Nor have handicaps deterred DII participants. In Alabama, the first recipient of Microsoft’s Gates Library Foundation grants for computers in public libraries in low-income areas, new learner Wayne Smith can only use his left hand.

Roberta Smith—Wayne’s peer coach working through the Middle Alabama Area Agency on Aging —reports that Wayne learned to use the computer keyboard’s “caps lock” key to create single capital letters, and to press the “shift” key for the @ sign needed to send emails.

Wayne has discovered that the mouse is his friend, according to Roberta. He has tamed it completely. When he accomplishes something difficult, he has a look of pleasure all over his face.

DII is bringing healing and hope to older adults with all kinds of life experiences, including the damage that may be an outcome of military service.

DII sites chosen by Senior Citizens Employment & Training, Inc. (SCET), one of our Wisconsin subgrantees, included a state shelter for war veterans in Chippewa Falls. Many are Viet Nam vets without computer skills—and they’ve had little or no communication with family because they have post-traumatic stress syndrome and don’t want to make phone calls, says SCET executive director Elizabeth Anderson.

But coached by SCSEP participants who are also vets, some residents of the shelter—which has its own small computer lab—have gone online to reach out to family and friends. One individual told me how much it meant to him that he can now communicate with family and see their pictures, Liz said. Another vet, she added, is now taking more advanced computer classes that he hopes will lead to employment.

From reducing the isolation afflicting many older adults, to improving their physical and mental health, and building the confidence and self-esteem that older adults need to seek employment now, these transformations make clear to us that SCSEP and DII are much more than jobs programs.

They are also aging and community service programs that assist older adults in empowering themselves and others. And when these older adults’ lives improve in so many ways, there may be resulting cost benefits that we are only beginning to explore.

Here then is DII’s story—its rationale and history, where we got money for the program, and more peer coaches and new learners telling us what DII means to them.

We have long followed the superb work done by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. Pew, a self-described “fact tank” in Washington, D.C., has closely tracked the changing nature of the digital divide for more than a decade.

Our work with SCSEP corroborates what the experts at Pew have been saying: the most vulnerable among us—those disadvantaged by class, gender, race, age, disabilities and geographical isolation—are the most likely to wind up on the wrong side of the digital divide.

In the 1990s, we recognized that you were unlikely to own a personal computer if you had less education and income and belonged to a racial minority. As computers have become faster and less costly, to be on the right side of the digital divide now means having your own computer at home plus a pricey high-speed Internet connection to go with it.

The good news today is that younger people—regardless of their educational level, race, region, or family income—don’t need to be convinced about the importance of using computers and the Internet. They’re going online at libraries, especially if their families can’t afford to be connected at home.

But unlike their younger peers, many older adults say they’re just not interested in going online, especially if they are low income, have less education, are from a racial minority and/or a rural community—the very population we are dedicated to serving.

They may think that after living so long without computers, they didn’t need to learn them now. Or they fear they are too old to learn something so complicated, and want to avoid one more blow to their self-worth and self-confidence. And they are the least likely to afford that home computer with the high-speed connection.

Meanwhile, we at SSAI began hearing from more and more of our subgrantee project directors that their SCSEP participants—who by law must be 55 and older—needed to have computer skills in order to search for jobs and be hired for them.

Considering the needs of all older adults—both those who didn’t need computers skills for work and those who did—we found very few public or private for-profit computer training programs or vendors that provided the patient and personal attention that older learners need and want.

There are many training courses at community colleges and One-Stop Career Centers, according to our executive director Tony Sarmiento. But most aren’t designed for older adult learners intimidated by the pace of the classes. What computer course provides hours of coaching and practice just focusing on how to use a mouse, which often is a major hurdle for many older learners?

The DII spark was lit when Tony attended an American Library Association conference in June, 2009. There he learned about Generations on Line (GoL), a Web-based tutorial program that provides on-screen, step-by-step instructions for older adults who want to make their first forays across the digital divide.

The first thing that struck me was that the GoL assumes self-teaching isn’t going to work for many older adults—that one-on-one coaching is the right model—and for that I give credit to GoL founder and CEO Tobey Dichter, Tony recalls. Then it struck me that many SCSEP participants could be the ideal coaches to help other older adults with GoL. Their own fresh memories of being anxious about computers could help remind them to be patient and positive as they coach their peers.

In the spring of 2009, the idea of peer coaches gelled when Tony and a colleague visited our subgrantee Lawrence County Community Action Partnership (LCCAP) in New Castle, Pa., last fall. There they spoke with SCSEP participant Ed Cunningham who, as part of his community service assignment, was already doing what amounted to computer coaching as part of being a “job developer” for other LCCAP SCSEP participants. (Today Ed is a peer coach coordinator for LCCAP’s DII program.)

Tony and his senior staff colleagues began brainstorming about combining SCSEP and GoL. The timing couldn’t have been better.

Thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of February, 2009, we’d already received an infusion of dollars to bring on new SCSEP participants. To use that money effectively, we needed to help our subgrantees create new community service assignments for the additional SCSEP participants to be paid with Recovery Act funds.

At our fall 2009 annual conference for our partners—81 subgrantees in 16 states—Tobey spoke about GoL. The conference’s closing session was devoted to discussing with our partners whether we should forge ahead with DII.

Even as operational details were being worked out, we’d already decided that SCSEP participants would be the peer coaches assisting new learners with GoL. And we recognized that the ideal coaching locations would be those sites which provide Internet access free to the public (such as libraries and senior centers) where older learners could practice the GoL lessons on their own if they wanted to.

Most subgrantee program directors were enthusiastic about DII. They understood that once older adults acquired basic computer skills, they could use them in a variety of ways.

Some older adults would use them to perform in their current jobs or find and apply for their next job. Many would be perfectly happy sending and receiving emails and exploring websites—activities that would help them avoid the loneliness and isolation that afflicts many. And those who went on to become more computer-savvy could perform important tasks such as tracking their government health and Social Security benefits.

We picked four subgrantees—The Community Action Agency of Siouxland in Sioux City, Iowa; Alexian Brothers Senior Neighbors of Chattanooga, Tenn.; Senior Citizens Employment & Training, Inc. in Eau Claire, Wis., and Family & Children’s Services of Central Maryland in Baltimore—for the DII pilot program’s first projects. While Baltimore and Chattanooga are urban areas, the other two grantees were chosen because they serve many rural areas where sparse populations too often mean fewer public services.

After training SCSEP participants to be peer coaches, the pilot sites opened their doors in October, 2009. Before year’s end, 58 more subgrantees had stepped forward to participate. Like the first four, they were given additional funds for a coach coordinator who would recruit and train SCSEP participants and arrange for at least two coaching sites. By June 30, 2010, there were almost 60 DII projects operating 150 coaching sites, with a comparable number of coaches.

Starting July 1, 2010, we moved into an expansion phase that aims to expand DII to over 300 coaching sites and 300 or more peer coaches with 53 of our SCSEP subgrantees by next July. We are extending DII to more rural areas where the economic downturn has forced severe cuts in community services. In Iowa, for example, the Community Action Agency of Siouxland—which had three active sites in DII’s pilot phase—is adding 10 additional sites, with the majority in rural areas.

We hope to continue building on our Digital Inclusion Initiative to show how SCSEP—and the low-income older adults who are SCSEP participants—can make a major impact on one of our nation’s unmet needs.

UPDATE, July 2015: After the ARRA funding ended, a smaller number of SCSEP participants have continued to coach older adults in online skills. We are currently conducting pilot Digital Inclusion projects using AARP RealPads and Apple iPads in Massachusetts, Mississippi, and Tennessee.  Our initial experiences have been extremely positive. We will provide progress reports shortly.