Moderator: Dr. Francine Jefferson,
National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA)
Thomas Kamber, Ph.D., Older Adults Technology Services (OATS)
Max B. Rothman, JD, LL.M., eWIRED, a Broadband Project of the Alliance for Aging
Holly Hudson, First Tennessee Human Resource Agency, Digital Inclusion Initiative
Tobey Gordon Dichter, M.Ed., Generations on Line, Digital Inclusion Initiative
Success in getting low-income seniors online depends on the effective practices of organizations administering the programs. NTIA’s Dr. Francine Jefferson offered context for the national interest in terms of getting all seniors – particularly low-income seniors – online.
The NTIA advises the U.S. President on telecommunications policy (broadband policy and Internet use/access) and administers federal stimulus grants with the goal of developing new broadband adopters and subscribers.
“Seniors are our partners in these projects, yet we often hear our partners referred to ‘them’,” Dr. Jefferson smiled. “They are us; and our success in getting them online will ripple through our economy at several levels.”
“Effective practices are what we are all about at NTIA,” said Dr. Jefferson. “This is not just to offer a return on our taxpayer investment, but we look at best practices that can be implemented in other places and communities, programs that can be self-sustaining, and programs that are nimble enough to adapt to changing circumstances.”
Local partnerships are essential in a successful grant award. With such difficulty in getting a place to set up labs in the first place, an enthusiastic municipal partner can usually help mitigate those early issues.
These programs offer critical understanding of goals, as well as successes and failures along the way. “Age is powerful predictor of broadband adoption,” said Dr. Jefferson. “We begin with knowing seniors have the greatest financial and digital literacy hurdles to overcome.”
Dr. Jefferson encouraged practitioners to incorporate tech support for seniors, as well as simplified devises and programs that make long term use of technology easier for seniors. “I want all of us to think of broadband use as use of public transportation. The Internet is now our most common public utility,” she said.
Older Adults Technology Services (OATS), a nonprofit in New York City harnesses the power of technology to change the way we age. OATS training and support, online services, and community-building programs empower older adults to thrive as individuals and members of society.
Thomas Kamber, Executive Director of OATS, described the partnership of 70 organizations in New York City, which he found inspiring. “We have colleges, hospitals, libraries, just a wide variety of types of partners. We’ve developed our own network, with a level of collaboration and trust. It has created a new platform.”
Kamber said that for practitioners hoping to understand the best revenue stream from the federal government, “I think the FCC is the best source of money.” He added that the new health care law directs billions of dollars for the upgrading of electronic medical records, and it addresses access and availability for low income needs. “Providers are required to provide access to health records; there is literally billions of dollars there. The training and access components of that are significant.”
“Digital health care and digital skills are critical for seniors and are essential to health care delivery,” Kamber said. “Having digital skills becomes more important with the emergence of digital medical records.”
Max Rothman is the President of the Alliance for Aging in Miami, Florida, which developed eWIRED: The Broadband Project. eWIRED is a three-year strategic initiative of the Alliance for Aging to teach low-income minority elders to use computers and the Internet.
“I love my computer, because that’s where my family and friends are,” Rothman quoted one of his Miami clients – whose relationship with her family, her healthcare providers, her community, and the world around her was altogether transformed merely by being online.
Like Connected Living, Rothman and Miami’s Alliance for Aging have already adapted teaching styles to accommodate both group and an individual setting, based on that senior’s needs. “We are also recruiting retired teachers,” said Rothman. That’s an obvious marriage of seniors and people who have spent lives teaching others. “Frequently, retired teachers re-enter the workplace doing things like this.”
Given Miami’s more diverse cultural and linguistic demographics, eWIRED revised their instructional material into a pictorial layout to help address cultural/language/literacy matters. They also translated their instructional materials into Spanish to accommodate the giant population of Spanish speakers from Puerto Rico, Cuba and other nations around Central and South America.
In post-conference correspondence, Peggy Remis, National Connections Program Manager for The OASIS Institute, said the mission of her St. Louis-based non-profit was promoting successful aging through lifelong learning, healthy living and social engagement. Founded in 1982, The OASIS Institute is in 40 cities across 24 states, serves more than 35,000 people annually.
“OASIS Connections is designed to help people over the age of 50 learn skills and build confidence in using computers and the Internet,” said Remis. “With local partners, we reach a broad and diverse population, through public library systems in Sacramento (CA), Portland (OR), Tucson (AZ), Dallas (TX) and Fort Lauderdale (FL). We enroll hundreds of older adults in hands-on classes. We track all of our classes for participation and evaluation. In 2011 we enrolled 8,240 participants in Connections classes across the country.
A former healthcare executive (at the company that is now GlaxoSmithKline), Tobey Gordon Dichter is the founder and CEO of Generations On Line, one of the longest-running nonprofits promoting Internet access/literacy to elders.
In 2009 and 2010, Senior Service America Inc. and Generations on Line collaborated to create the Digital Inclusion Initiative (DII), a national program that would be easy to replicate in any community. DII was initially funded by the stimulus bill.
In its first 18 months, the Digital Inclusion Initiative introduced the internet to 24,500 adults over age 55 (including many low-income and seniors), employed 500 low-income seniors as peer coaches, and worked with 54 local nonprofit agencies in 16 states.
“I have studied and worked on issues related to computer literacy and seniors for 15 years, Dichter said, “This is the first time in history that older people are not wiser than the 10-year-old grandchild in terms of knowing the answer to a question or how to do something.” That’s disconcerting on so many levels.
“The traditional context of supply and demand does not apply to those in digital denial,” Dichter said. “Our online training has large type, step-by-step instructions on each screen, guiding elders through the process. How seniors today learn is not how younger adults learn, so we have to acknowledge that.”
Generations on Line, Dichter said, “Is essentially the training wheels to get low-income seniors online.”
It remains to be seen how the health care law (Affordable Care Act) will be funded annually going forward and the coming U.S. Supreme Court decision this summer may have some affect on it. But the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has already appropriated some of the $10 million in mandatory spending for Aging and Disability Resource Centers through Fiscal Year 2014.
The health care law also directs billions of dollars for the upgrading of electronic medical records, and it addresses access and availability for low-income needs. The health care law also authorized additional funding to the aging network, including $15.0 million to Aging and Disability Resource Centers and $10.0 million to Area Agencies on Aging for outreach and education programs related to Medicare low-income assistance programs. These funds will be obligated through the end of the 2012 funding cycle.
The Older Americans Act Title IV grants are awarded to support healthcare service in rural areas, computer training, and civic engagement. Other titles in the act award grants engaging low-income senior citizens in community service employment and volunteer opportunities and to protect “vulnerable elder rights.”
But no one at the conference was aware of grants awarded recently under Title IV of the Older Americans Act. The U.S. Institute for Museums and Library Services also offers grants for providing access.
Conference attendees were dismayed that one of the federal investments supporting efforts to get low income seniors online, the U.S. Labor Department’s Community Service Employment Program for Older Americans (a work-based training program for older workers) was level funded in FY 2012. The Senate Appropriations Committee Report has recommended level funding again for FY 2013.
The federal legislative process is complex and often confusing. Many people, including advocates, may not understand that federal funding is a two-step process. Congress first authorizes something and then separately allocates funding for that which has already been authorized.
There are times when Congress will authorize a particular program, but never appropriate the funds to implement it. That leaves advocates happy with the victory, hopeful that the pipeline for partnership money will soon begin, only to be left frustrated with the lack of progress in getting the actual funding.
“Authorization” equals permission to spend money; “appropriation” means writing the check to spend the money. Any money Congress spends must first be authorized. It should be hard to spend tax-payer dollars, but it shouldn’t be impossible, particularly for making sure that the least among us can fully benefit from digital communications technology. As many political observers have noted, the current hyper-partisan atmosphere in the nation’s capital further complicates an already complex process, and far too often brings it to halt.
In making the case for broadband among low-income seniors in Vermont, conference participant Lawrence Keyes, the Health IT Coordinator of Vermont’s state health program (SASH/Support and Services at Home) urges advocates to be particularly attuned to the components of the new health care law to get seniors online. Nobody “objects to improving health care or lowering the cost of health care.” Keyes said. Their state health program will include full online capabilities for tele-health and tele-medicine applications. “It would follow that broadband connections made for SASH can also be used for other educational and personal online activities by seniors,” Keys said.
Holly Hudson, with First Tennessee Human Resource Agency, delivers services to the area around Johnson City, Tennessee, with hard-to-reach populations in Appalachia. She talked about the challenges of reaching the very low income Tennesseans many of whom live in dire housing, across a wide rural area of east Tennessee.
“In rural areas like this, scheduling classes for particular things is hard to do,” Hudson said. “When people come into town, for mail and amenities, then that is the time that is convenient for them. A peer coach stays in our lab and people wait in line to use those computers.”
Sneedville, TN, is a very rural area, a place totally forgotten. Hudson begged and pleaded for computers for a lab in Sneedville. “That lab gets more use,” she said, describing the feeling of seeing people look at the wider world for the first time. “My people are reconnected to their families, talking to sons and daughters in Afghanistan; seeing and doing things they couldn’t imagine.”
Tony Sarmiento, Executive Director, Senior Service America, noted that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – in their Digital literacy project – is in the process of studying reallocating funds currently offering telephone service to low-income communities for broadband access. The study of what that move means is an opportunity to leverage government funding to support partnerships promoting digital literacy. The name of the FCC program is Lifeline, and it currently provides funding to make sure underserved populations have access to phone service.