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Home-bound seniors find community online

HOST INTRO: We often hear of a digital divide between the rich and poor, but age is also a factor.

Seniors lag far behind the rest of the population when it comes to being connected online. According to a Pew research report, 40% of seniors don’t go online at all, and more than half don’t have broadband at home.

Chava Gourarie went to a senior center in Queens that’s bucking the trend, and connecting seniors online.

It’s Wednesday afternoon at the Benjamin-Rosenthal senior center in Flushing. Groups of women are playing Mahjong, and in the gym, a yoga class is getting started.

Off to the side, in a small room, Dee Walker is starting her 10am sing-along class.

DEE: We had three issues to cover today. The Cinco de Mayo, birthdays for May, and we lost our Ben. E King so I’m going to be doing some of his songs, which I know…

There a few people in the room with Dee, but another 10 or so participants just appear in a row on the bottom of the flat screen TV on the wall.

MUSIC: There is a rose in Spanish Harlem….

There’s more going on here than just off-key singing. The students on their screens are connecting from their homes. Dee’s class is part of the Virtual Senior Center, which is run by a non-profit called Self Help.

The Virtual Senior Center has about 200 clients – mostly women, all in New York City – who regularly take classes from their homes. It’s one of the only programs of its kind, but it’s part of a growing number of organizations trying to get seniors online.

Dee has a balloon in her hair. She’s keeping an eye on all the seniors on her screen, and she’s getting them to move a little bit.

DEE: Okay, open and close those hands!

One of the participants in today’s class is 92-year-old Rose Binder. She lives just a seven minute bus-ride away. So before the class ends, I head to her one-family home to meet her.

DOOR OPENING CHAVA: Hi! ROSE: Did you see me on the program?

Dee’s class is just ending. Rose has her headset on, and is sitting in front of her laptop at the dining room table. The Virtual Senior Center, which gets its money from grants and private donations, would have given her a computer if she didn’t already have one.

Rose takes me to the Senior Center’s home page and clicks on the day’s calendar.

ROSE: Today? Let’s go back to home. Tai Chi, energy exercise. I’m not. I don’t like that. I do enough exercise in Dee’s class. This one I’d like to go to, it’s at 12 o’clock. No. I think I’ll skip that and go to the one at 4 o’clock because I have to eat lunch too. (0:21)

These classes are anchors for Rose’s day.  Rose is in good shape for a 90 something, but she’s housebound after a fall a few years back.

Carmella Chessen is the Coordinator at the Virtual Senior Center. She says they ask their clients to attend at least 4 classes a week.

CHESSEN: That’s because we want the program to help them with loneliness, isolation, so if they’re not social, it’s really not doing anything for them. (0:08)

It’s a support system and a community, for people who might otherwise be completely isolated. Social solation can lead to depression, which contributes to a whole list of health care issues.

CHESSEN: The better you feel mentally and emotionally, the better your health is, your physical health.

Which means they can spend less time at the doctor, and more time living.

And these days, a lot of living is happening online.

Laurie Orlov is the founder of Aging in Place Tech. It’s an industry news-site dedicated to the technology market for older adults.

ORLOV: There is a worsening digital divide – not between the rich and the poor necessarily – but between the connected and the not connected. (0:09)

Orlov says one of the problems when you talk about seniors is that everyone from 65 to 100 gets painted with the same paintbrush. Many people in their sixties have been using computers for much of their careers. It’s people in their seventies and older that are getting shut out.

And online access is quickly becoming a necessity.

ORLOV: Many of the traditional ways for seniors to get information have switched from being paper and physical to going online. (0:09)

For example, social security is moving to direct deposit and closing down offices, bank branches are closing, and even disappearing bookstores put people without an Amazon account at a disadvantage.

Most technologies created for seniors are healthcare related. That includes home monitoring, medication trackers, devices that track movement for changes, and telehealth services.

The exclusive focus on healthcare can detract from the most important thing for anyone of any age: human interaction.

For Rose, the internet is her social lifeline.

One of the classes she logs into, is taught by Elisha Ferguson on Saturdays.

FERGUSON: I teach a class called Washington this Week. it’s about national politics, where I’ll propose a topic and ask question and I’ll ask, what do you guys think?

Last Saturday the discussion was about the 2016 presidential election. Hillary Clinton came up a lot.

YETTA: I’m not prepared to say that I don’t like Hillary, but I’m worried about her.

Ferguson says the same 8 to 10 people come to her class every week.

FERGUSON: None of them have ever met each other but they care so deeply about each other. We’ve kind of become this little family.

That’s what the internet is best at – connecting people.

Getting more seniors online will mean access to affordable broadband, more training and support from the community and caregivers, and devices that are better designed for older users.

There’s one more barrier that stops older adults from going online, and that’s fear.

Rose isn’t just lucky, or savvy. She’s fearless. Here’s her advice:

ROSE: This one lady, she had a question to Carmella, so I said why don’t you email her? So she says, email? are you crazy? I’m afraid of it. I said, there’s nothing to be afraid of. She says, I’ll break the computer. I said, you’re not going to break it. Even if you make a mistake, nothing’s going to happen!

At 92, Rose Binder’s world extends far beyond her dining room table, thanks to this new modern invention: the internet.

Chava Gourarie, Columbia Radio News


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