En español | Beverly Black's pre-pandemic life was busy, including work as a childcare provider three days a week until the March lockdown in New York City left her alone at home.
Black, 68, didn't replace her old computer when it broke years ago. But after the coronavirus forced people to shelter in place, city officials and others worked quickly to get unconnected older adults online. Within weeks, Black had a new LG Android tablet, among 10,000 devices provided to those age 60 and older in the city, along with T-Mobile connectivity for two years and training — all free for those who signed up.
"All they had to do was be a senior living in public housing,” says Tom Kamber, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Older Adults Technology Services (OATS). “We picked people on a first-come, first-serve [basis] and required them not to already have internet.” Now OATS has joined forces with AARP as an affiliated charity, like the AARP Foundation, Legal Counsel for the Elderly and Wish of a Lifetime.
Black has taken full advantage of the tablet from “virtual tours to other countries and different museums in London and the Louvre in Paris."
"I've been to virtual museums in New York,” she says. “I've actually had a virtual tour of the school my granddaughter is trying to get into."
Device powerful enough for video is crucial
The pandemic has drawn attention to just how critical technology access is for older adults, who are especially vulnerable to severe COVID-19. To avoid infection they have to stay away from family and friends who don't live with them. Many don't have internet or a computer — or their device is too old to support video connections — so they're missing out.
Another important reason to help older adults get online: so they can sign up more easily for their coronavirus vaccinations. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that states place people 75 and older among the highest priorities, right behind nursing home residents. COVID-19 is most deadly to adults 65 and older, and 95 percent of the deaths so far have been in people 50 and older.
City governments, nonprofits and communications companies across the country are stepping up to remedy the deficiencies in technology. Pockets of seniors in many communities are using new laptops or tablets with free internet and training, courtesy of partnerships aimed at averting the ill effects of isolation.
"This is a model that will grow around the country in 2021 as everyone wants to get seniors online,” Kamber says.
Among the leaders is the nonprofit Community Tech Network, with locations in the San Francisco Bay Area and Austin, Texas. Within a month of a wave of shutdowns in the United States, the group had launched Home Connect, offering hundreds of free devices and internet as well as virtual training. Most internet providers nationwide also offer low-cost options to those in need, but the specific amounts vary by provider and locale.
"People need this connection to others, and this is the only safe way to do it,” says Kami Griffiths, Community Tech Network's cofounder and executive director. “This tablet and the internet is their lifeline to the rest of the world, so they don't have to feel so alone."
Groups help their communities
By sharing what they've learned since spring 2020 about acquiring devices, training teachers and configuring tablets for a recipient's language needs, Griffiths says nonprofits can replicate and expand the movement. Older adults who need help should contact organizations such as their library, senior center or agency on aging that could advise them on what's available.
Even though most Americans consider internet access essential because of the pandemic, the Pew Research Center's most recent data shows fewer than 3 in 5 people age 65 and older had broadband internet service at home.
Despite the desire to connect, some older adults aren't successful with the phone and virtual training required during the pandemic, says Skye Downing, executive director of the nonprofit Austin Free-Net. Although 25 older adults who already had internet service received an Android tablet and training through a pilot project, only 15 completed the program by year's end. Among the successful ones was Matthew Robinson, 72, a blues singer and musician.
"I felt like a caveman in today's world,” he says. “Everything is changing, and I'm wanting to catch up some so I could keep up.”
A father of six, grandfather of 16 and great-grandfather of 24, Robinson uses his tablet to keep in touch with family and friends. The self-taught guitarist says he's also taking online guitar lessons and is “thinking about learning a foreign language."
Nonprofits forced to change outreach
Such successes don't come without cost. For nonprofits already strapped for cash, the pandemic has created additional financial burdens.
"The cost of running our program has significantly increased because of COVID,” says Dan Noyes, co-chief executive of Tech Goes Home. The nonprofit based in the Boston area brings computers, internet and training to all ages. Noyes’ organization spent about $275,000, including about $130,000 on technology, for older adults in 2020.
"Before COVID, all courses took place in person at one of the branches of the public library. The machines would go out in bulk to the library to be distributed to in-person visitors. Now, we're running virtual courses and have to ship devices to people's doorsteps,” he says. “What was $6 per delivery is now $40 per delivery."
In December, the effort received a $30,000 boost from AT&T, which along with the city's Age Strong Commission paid for devices and internet for 40 older adults with some training that began this month. Other classes start in March.
William Marotta, a retired state employee who lives alone in San Francisco, got his 10-inch tablet in the fall through Community Tech Network's Home Connect. His previous two tablets had stopped working, so Marotta, 75, welcomed a replacement. He has used it for a couple of telehealth doctor visits, which have become more common during the pandemic.
Large number on Medicare have no internet
However, research shows that more than 2 of every 5 Medicare beneficiaries who live in their own homes or apartments don't have home access to a desktop or laptop computer with a high-speed connection. More than a quarter also don't have a smartphone or other digital device that could fill in the gap.
Snehlata Malaviya, 69, had a cellphone but got her first tablet through OATS in Manhattan.
"I was working part time and then I was locked down in my studio apartment,” she says. “I don't have children or grandchildren. This tablet helped me a lot during this difficult time.”
Both Black and Malaviya are proof of the positives that such connectivity can bring. Kamber says OATS has worked with about 50,000 people face to face since he founded it in 2004. But just since April, OATS has served more than 60,000 virtually.
Black, who lives in Harlem, has relatives across the country, including Arizona, Maryland, New Hampshire and upstate New York. She enjoys chatting on Zoom with her two sons and daughter and their families, including four grandchildren and an infant great-grandson. She attends church services on Zoom and is online with many virtual activities.
"I take just about every class the program has to offer,” she says.
Sharon Jayson is an AARP contributing writer in Austin, Texas. A native Texan, she spent 10 years as a USA Today staff reporter in McLean, Virginia, and later in Austin.
Need help getting a device or internet?
Most programs that offer free personal computers or tablets or discounted internet access have income limits but may have free classes regardless of income. Some programs that target students serve people of any age. Check with local social services agencies, including area agencies on aging, for possibilities in addition to what's below.
Free or low-cost devices
These are some of the programs that operate in more than one area of the country:
• Community Tech Network helps economically disadvantaged people get connected to and comfortable with the internet, concentrating on the San Francisco Bay Area and central Texas. Its Home Connect program, started in April 2020, helps older adults who are isolated and sheltering in place. It hopes to expand nationwide this year by helping train other nonprofits in its methods.
• EveryoneOn helps low-income people find low-cost, refurbished computers and tablets through companies such as PCs for People and PlanITROI. Its service also points out low-cost internet options.
• Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) partnered with New York City officials and a company in the private sector to provide tablets, internet and training to older residents in city-subsidized housing and hopes to replicate that program elsewhere as financing allows. Its Senior Planet program teaches technology to all ages nationwide in free online classes, concentrating on adults 60 years and older. And it is launching an Aging Connected service to help people find low-cost internet.
• PCs for People sells refurbished desktop and laptop computers to people enrolled in an income-based government assistance program or making below 200 percent of the poverty level. It also sells mobile Wi-Fi hot spots, for a one-time fee, with T-Mobile 4G LTE service starting at $15 a month.
• Tech Goes Home partners with other organizations in the Boston area to help older adults and those younger learn digital skills. It also has helped organizations in other cities, including Chattanooga, Tennessee, Las Cruces, New Mexico, and New Orleans, and wants to expand that outreach. All of its courses are online during the pandemic. After completing 15 hours of instruction, participants are eligible to buy a new Chromebook for $50 — priority goes to those without technology, people who are jobless or underemployed, immigrants and people with disabilities — and can get help to sign up for low-cost internet.
Low-cost internet for all ages
Providers in many areas have low-cost plans with speeds high enough to stream videos if you have limited income or participate in certain government programs. But they don't always publicize the offers.
If you haven't enrolled in the federal Lifeline program to help lower the monthly cost of phone or internet service, look there first because some companies require participation in it. If you live on Native American lands, you could receive an additional discount through the Tribal Link Up program. Among the larger broadband providers:
• Access from AT&T. Available to people who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in parts of 21 states where AT&T provides internet service; $10 a month or less for as fast as 25 megabits per second speed (Mbps).
• Altice Advantage Internet. Available to adults age 65 and older who qualify for Supplemental Security Income or veterans who receive state or federal public assistance who live in parts of the four states where Optimum by Altice or the 19 states where Suddenlink Communications provides service; $14.99 plus taxes and installation for speeds of up to 30 Mbps.
• CenturyLink Lifeline. Discounts on regularly priced service are available to participants of the federal Lifeline communications services program in the parts of 34 states that CenturyLink serves. The minimum speed to qualify for a discount of up to $9.25 a month is 25 Mbps.
• Connect2Compete by Cox. Available to households with at least one K-12 student and that participate in a qualifying government assistance program in the parts of 19 states where Cox provides internet service; $9.95 a month for speeds of at least 25 Mbps. Otherwise, the company's least expensive internet is $29.99 for up to 10 Mbps.
• Connect2Compete by Mediacom. Available to households with at least one K-12 student who qualifies for free or reduced-price school lunches in the parts of 22 states where Mediacom provides internet service; $9.95 a month for speeds up to 25 Mbps.
• Frontier Fundamental Internet. Available to California households who participate in one of four government programs for $19.99 a month. Internet speeds vary by area served. A second program with varying speeds, Frontier Affordable Broadband, is available to California LifeLine landline telephone customers for as low as $17.65 a month bundled with phone service. Both sets of applicants are eligible for a free Chromebook while supplies last. Frontier, which has internet service in parts of 25 states, extends internet discounts to those who qualify for their state's Lifeline phone service.
• Google Fiber. Google is rolling out free gigabit internet, speeds of up to 1,000 Mpbs, to families who live in public and affordable housing complexes in the 19 cities where the company has strung fiber optic lines. Google has been concentrating on apartment complexes and high-density neighborhoods in its Fiber program.
• Human-I-T Connect. Partners with internet providers in the Los Angeles area to find service starting at $15 a month for qualified low-income households. The nonprofit also works with other charities in the area to distribute devices that it has refurbished and provide training.
• Internet Essentials from Comcast. Available to people who qualify for programs including Medicaid, low-income home energy assistance, public housing, tribal assistance or Veterans Affairs pensions in parts of 40 states where Comcast provides internet service; $9.95 a month for 25 Mbps.
• Spectrum Internet Assist. Available to adults 65 and older who are part of the Supplemental Security Income program in the parts of 42 states where Charter Spectrum offers service. No price is listed on its website. Speeds are up to 30 Mbps.
• Verizon Lifeline. Available to those who qualify for the federal Lifeline program in the parts of 10 states where Verizon Fios offers service. It provides a $20 discount on Verizon's usual internet service prices, $19.99 plus taxes and equipment charges for 200 Mbps.