As Life Moves Online, an Older Generation Faces a Digital Divide

For more than a week, Linda Quinn, 81, has isolated herself inside her Bellevue, Wash., home to keep away from the coronavirus. Her only companion has been her goldendoodle, Lucy.

To blunt the solitude, Ms. Quinn’s daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons wanted to hold video chats with her through Zoom, a videoconferencing app. So they made plans to call and talk her through installing the app on her computer.

But five minutes before the scheduled chat last week, Ms. Quinn realized there was a problem: She had not used her computer in about four months and could not remember the password. “My mind just went totally blank,” she said.

Panicked, Ms. Quinn called a grandson, Ben Gode, 20, who had set up the computer for her. Mr. Gode remembered the password, allowing the call and the Zoom tutorial to take place — but not until Ms. Quinn got him to promise not to tell the rest of the family about her tech stumble.

As life has increasingly moved online during the pandemic, an older generation that grew up in an analog era is facing a digital divide. Often unfamiliar or uncomfortable with apps, gadgets and the internet, many are struggling to keep up with friends and family through digital tools when some of them are craving those connections the most.

While teenagers are celebrating birthdays over Zoom with one another, children are chatting with friends over online games and young adults are ordering food via delivery apps, some older people are intimidated by such technology. According to a 2017 Pew Research study, three-quarters of those older than 65 said they needed someone else to set up their electronic devices. A third also said they were only a little or not at all confident in their ability to use electronics and to navigate the web.

That is problematic now when many people 65 and older, who are regarded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as most at risk of severe illness related to the coronavirus, are shutting themselves in. Many nursing homes have closed off to visitors entirely. Yet people are seeking human interaction and communication through the web or their devices to stave off loneliness and to stay positive.

For many seniors, “the only social life they had is with book clubs and a walk in a park,” said Stephanie Cacioppo, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago. “When they look at their calendar, it’s all canceled. So how do we as a society help them regain a sense of tomorrow?”

To bridge that digital gap, families are finding new apps and gadgets that are easy for older relatives to use. Companies and community members are setting up phone calls and, in areas where lockdowns are not yet in place, in-person workshops to help those uncomfortable with tech walk through the basics.

Officials are also calling for people to pitch in to close the divide. Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, urged people this month to help the elderly set up technology to talk to medical providers.

“If you have an elderly neighbor or family member who might have trouble with their laptop or their phone for this purpose, make yourself available to help,” Ms. Verma said in a news conference.

In nursing homes that have stopped visitors from coming in to limit the spread of the virus, workers are leaning on tech to help residents stay connected with their families.

At 23 senior living communities in North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia run by Spring Arbor Senior Living, workers have been triaging family calls — sometimes multiple ones a day per resident — over Apple’s FaceTime, Skype and a software system operated by K4Connect, a tech provider, said Rich Williams, a senior vice president at HHHunt, which owns the centers.

“That line of communication is essential to the resident’s well-being,” he said.

Mr. Williams added that workers had also used virtual activities like Nintendo’s Wii bowling and SingFit, a music singalong program, to help Spring Arbor’s 1,450 residents — whose average age is 88 — pass the time and stay active.

Candoo, a New York company that helps older people navigate technology, has recently taught its customers how to use Zoom and other video calling apps with downloadable guides and phone calls and, in some cases, by taking over their screens and showing them where to click. Candoo charges $30 for a one-hour lesson and $40 for support.

“People are literally relying on technology, not only to keep them healthy and safe and alive, but also to keep them occupied,” said Liz Hamburg, founder of Candoo.

Jane Cohn, 84, who lives alone in New York, has paid for Candoo’s services to help her get connected. Typically active, she has been staying inside because of the virus outbreak. Her doctor’s check-in went virtual, while her therapy session and New York University class on architecture and urbanism moved to Zoom.

Ms. Cohn said she called Candoo twice in one day last week to help her get on Zoom. She had never used the software before, and when she tried to join her N.Y.U. class through the videoconferencing app, she saw only a video of herself and wasn’t able to hear anything.

A Candoo representative walked her through Zoom over the phone. Ms. Cohn, already worried about the virus, said struggling with technology “adds another level of stress.”

Some people are finding easy-to-use tech to connect generations. Medbh Hillyard recently introduced an electronic speaker called a Toniebox to connect her parents, Margaret Ward and Paddy Hillyard, to her sons, Rory and Finn, ages 3 and 18 months, during quarantine.

While they all live in the same neighborhood in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and frequently saw each other before the outbreak, they have now stopped close contact. Each evening, Ms. Ward, 69, and Mr. Hillyard, 76, instead use an app on their smartphone to record bedtime stories. The app then transmits the stories to the Toniebox so Rory and Finn can listen, Ms. Hillyard said.

“It’s been a really, really good way of having contact each evening and them still being able to do bedtime stories for us, which is really lovely,” Ms. Hillyard said.

Tech-savvy older people have found themselves in great demand, fielding calls from friends and neighbors who need digital help.

Chuck Kissner, 72, a technology executive in Los Altos, Calif., who administers a computer network for his extended family and maintains their 40 or so devices with security updates and software licenses, said he recently had a deluge of requests for tech assistance from his neighbors.

Last week, he spent several hours using remote access to the devices of his homeowner association board to help members, who range in age from about 65 to 85, figure out how to attend a virtual meeting.

One neighbor and board member sanitized his iPad and left it at Mr. Kissner’s front door. The neighbor was having trouble logging into his Apple iCloud account because he could not remember the password. Mr. Kissner could not get into the account, and the neighbor eventually sought support from Apple.

“Everyone got into the meeting,” Mr. Kissner said. “It’s great to see the reaction when it works and it seems so simple.”

After Ms. Quinn’s family helped her get on Zoom, she told her book club about the videoconferences. While some were excited about keeping the club going online during the outbreak, others didn’t want to try it, she said.

“I’m thinking that we won’t do it this month, but when they get tired of not getting together, we’ll probably do it,” said Ms. Quinn, who was also trying to get her bridge club to go virtual.

Her family has certainly embraced the Zoom calls. Jackson Gode, 23, one of Ms. Quinn’s grandsons, lives across the country in Washington, D.C., and used to text her a few times a month. Now they video chat more frequently, he said.

“We’re in this time of great uncertainty,” he said, adding he was “just wanting to make sure that every moment we have counts.”

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