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Seniors & the "Digital Divide"

computer keyboard
Monday's Heloise Hints column included a letter from Joyce who wishes companies would remember that not everyone is online:

Dear Heloise: Something that I think needs attention: COMPUTERS! I think they are great and provide a good service. But companies need to know that not everyone has a computer - seniors like me, and people who can't afford them. Everywhere you look - on labels, cans, beauty products, offers for contests, recipes, you get my point - "For more info:"; "to enter contest:"; "to get more recipes:" They all say the same thing: "Reach us at:" We can't reach them if we don't have a "com"-puter! We folks in No Computer Land are missing a lot and are left out of so much. If "com"-panies would list an 800 number (or a mailing address) on the label, we could learn a lot, too, and not feel left out! - Joyce in Montgomery, Ala.

Heloise's response?

Joyce, how right you are! The largest demographic of the population in the United States today is people over the age of 50! Companies need to listen to their customers and understand that not everyone has a computer or even access to one. If you don't have a computer, your library, senior center or a public school that allows access to its library most likely has computers that you can use for free. So businesses, please remember that not all of your customers are online! - Heloise

I no longer work directly in this area, but this is an issue near and dear to my heart (I wrote about seniors and the digital divide for the now-defunct Digital Divide Network and also did my masters thesis on the subject, circa 2001).

I definitely feel for Joyce, but the reality is that there are strong business pressures on companies (cost, competition, market reach) that lead them to doing so much online. Given the two options -- businesses doing more traditional offline promotions -- or getting more seniors online -- the latter is probably the more practical.

Dr. Jeff Cole, Director of the Center for the Digital Future, was recently at AARP, and he shared that their Digital Future Report shows that lack of access is no longer the primary reason that older adults aren't online.

That may largely be true (save for some low-income or rural populations). Today, lack of participation is likely more related to other reasons, like fear of learning, how difficult computers are to use (still!), and just general lack of interest. However, new technology like the iPad is helping to address ease of use, and fear and lack of interest can be addressed with increased exposure.

Tech Training for Seniors

Today's Wall Street Journal talks about programs that enroll teens as tech ambassadors to seniors:

The Central Oregon Council on Aging, a Redmond, Ore., senior-services agency, enrolled 70 people last year for tech training by teens from a nearby high school's computer class, and 100 more are signed up this year. A Carmel, Ind., nonprofit, Net Literacy, enlists 400 to 600 middle- and high-school students each year for a senior tech-training program called "Senior Connects." And at New York's Pace University, a popular service-learning program sends students to retirement facilities to teach seniors skills from email and online banking to Wii and video chat.

As the article points out, teens can be great ambassadors because they are enthusiastic about technology and the average teen is also pretty tech-savvy. But there are potential down sides:

Many older people face cognitive hurdles. Studies show that as they age, many seniors lose some of their ability to remember, solve problems and process new information quickly. There are psychological hurdles as well. Among people over 65 who avoid using the Internet, the main reasons cited are that they either don't feel comfortable or skillful enough to use computers, or they believe "the Internet is a dangerous place," says John B. Horrigan, vice president, policy research, for TechNet, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit advocacy group. These deficits may loom particularly large when a senior is seated across from a teenager who has been using computer and digital technology since elementary school.

Fortunately, there are options for seniors who would be more comfortable learning from a peer. SeniorNet is a nation-wide organization whose Learning Centers offers both basic and advanced classes; classes are small and are taught by other seniors. There are also likely to be many local and regional-based programs close by; check with your public librarian who will likely be able to help you find something that can work for you or the senior in your life.

What do you think about the grey digital divide? Let me know in the comments or tweet me at BethAARP.

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