Enabling Age-Friendly Connections in Mount Washington Valley, New Hampshire
When a popular senior center closed its in-person services during the COVID-19 pandemic, the regional age-friendly team equipped, trained and connected older adults with internet access
The Mount Washington Valley Age-Friendly Community, which joined the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities in 2018, is made up of a dozen communities (11 in New Hampshire and one in Maine).
The Gibson Center for Senior Services is the lead agency coordinating the efforts of the Mount Washington Valley Age Friendly Community. The members are, in alphabetical order:
- Albany, New Hampshire
- Bartlett, New Hampshire
- Chatham, New Hampshire
- Conway, New Hampshire
- Eaton, New Hampshire
- Freedom, New Hampshire
- Fryeburg, Maine
- Hart's Location, New Hampshire
- Jackson, New Hampshire
- Madison, New Hampshire
- Ossipee, New Hampshire
- Tamworth, New Hampshire
With the onset of COVID-19 stay-at-home advisories in March 2020, the Gibson Center for Senior Services in North Conway, New Hampshire, canceled all of its in-person activities.
The closure left the center’s elderly clientele stranded at home without access to exercise classes, social activities, meal and transportation services, and medical and family connections.
When Gibson Center staff began checking in on the homebound older adults, the frustration and despair was palpable. “I’m so isolated," "I can’t see my family,” were common complaints. The appeal heard most often? “I need a computer.”
Shortly after the COVID shutdowns, the center’s staff had watched a video about a program that paired high school seniors with older adults who wanted to learn computer skills. Feeling inspired, Marianne Jackson, M.D., the Gibson Center’s executive director, reached out to a program representative to determine if it could work in North Conway. The answer was yes, but with several modifications because of the COVID-19 exposure risks. The center named its program "Equip, Train and Connect" because what's needed was a device, knowing how to use it and having access to high-speed internet.
Although broadband, or high-speed internet access, isn’t available throughout the Mount Washington Valley region, Jackson said she and her team decided to focus on what they could do rather than what they couldn’t.
“I have no control over building out fiber — nor do we have the needed millions of dollars,” says Jackson, noting that another group has been at work for several years to build out high-speed fiber lines throughout Mount Washington Valley's Carroll County.
The Need for Broadband
“Those working on expanding broadband in our area are working really hard at the how: How do you get broadband to Mount Washington Valley?" says Jackson.
“I like to think of what we're doing as the big why. Why does it matter if people have broadband or not? Well, think about what having broadband can do for someone's life and how damaging it can be when they don’t have it.
“For instance, telehealth is huge in our cold, wintry, dark winter climate. People no longer have to miss their doctor appointments because they can't drive. Many of their follow-up appointments can now occur on Zoom. It’s safer. It's more efficient. It’s just as effective. It’s to our seniors’ advantage. It shouldn’t go away.”
“What we had control over,” she continues, “was helping people connect to the internet. We began seeking ways to make those connections so older adults would have access to equipment, have the digital skills to use that equipment and then access for connecting to the internet.”
Step 1: Equip
“We were in the middle of a pandemic, and everybody's answer to continuing our work during the pandemic was, ‘Well, go to Zoom. Just pivot and offer the programs virtually,'" Jackson explains. “But that wasn’t possible for the seniors who didn’t have workable devices.”
The Gibson Center asked the community to donate laptops and desktops. That resulted in about 40 computers.
The team next contacted a local computer service contractor who agreed to discount his fees for restoring the donated computers back to factory settings, refurbishing the devices and installing Windows 10.
“At about that same time, we got a call from the Tufts Health Plan Foundation alerting us to their $10,000 rapid response grants to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on the elderly,” says Jackson. “They told us, ‘You can have the grant. You have a track record with us. We're not going through the typical grant cycle process, which takes months. You tell us what you want to do and we're going to fund it.’”
Step 2: Train
Because of the pandemic, high school students couldn’t become the trainers, so the Gibson Center reached out to the Conway Public Library to provide free training in computer basics.
The older residents receiving computers from the Gibson Center’s program wanted laptops or other smaller-sized devices. “We were surprised they didn’t prefer desktops,” says Jackson. “We thought a keyboard and larger monitor would be easier to use. Because many of the seniors live in small apartments, they wanted something that didn’t take up a lot of space."
“And I mean the basics,” says Jackson. “How to access a browser. How to get an email address. How to set a password. When we told them to click on something, they didn’t know what we meant by click. It was new language for a lot of people.”
Once the students got comfortable with the basics, the rest of the curriculum was clearly defined.
“We felt it was important to focus on social connectedness, so the classes were about email, Zoom and telehealth,” says Jackson. The one-on-one classes — which were conducted by Andrea Libby, a local IT (information technology) professional — met for an hour each week over four weeks.
“I meet my students where they are and we go from there,” says Libby. “Something I frequently hear seniors say is, ‘I’m so stupid.’ To show them they are not stupid. I show them a YouTube video called 17-Year-Olds Dial a Rotary Phone. The teens are utterly clueless about how to use the phone. So when I'm watching this with a senior, I can say, ‘These kids aren't stupid. They just didn’t grow up with phones like that.’"
"It really breaks the ice for older students," Libby continues. "They finally accept that learning computer skills is not about intelligence. I love witnessing the light bulb go off as my students begin to understand that age does not equal stupidity when it comes to technology.”
Libby discovered another trick to make the process smoother. “Older people have been exposed to technology through their kids or their grandkids. And when the kids try to teach them, the seniors tell me, they go way too fast. My biggest recommendation, when teaching beginners, is to break the process down into tiny steps. That means you can't say, ‘Bring your mouse to the top of the screen.’ You've got to break it down further: ‘This is a mouse. This is its purpose. This is how it moves.’”
By turning an office within its building into a cozy parlor called the Gibson Commons Internet Café, the senior center has provided the area's older residents with a place where they can get online if they don't have their own internet device or service at home.
On a related point, the nonprofits Digitunity and Give IT Get IT are, Jackson says, “wonderful partners for gathering and distributing used computers.”
Libby was able to put into play one of Marianne Jackson's goals, which was to use the computers to help the seniors feel more connected to the community during the shutdown.
“We set up bookmarks that were community- and health-related and signed them up for newsletters,” says Libby.
She also customized the computers for students if they encountered a stumbling block. For instance, she has changed the double-click function to a single-click for opening items in Windows. "Some seniors lack the dexterity to double-click," says Libby. "Others find the function difficult to understand and there's no simple way to distinguish when to use one or the other. I do stress that I'm giving them a custom setting that they likely won't find on someone else’s computer."
Step 3: Connect
A third part of the process required accessing the internet.
“Many of our low-income residents are not willing or able to afford the $40 to $80 per month subscription fees for internet service — and the internet isn’t even available in many of our rural areas,” says Jackson.
In addition to free Wi-Fi access at the library, the Gibson Center renovated an office in its building, turning it into the Gibson Commons Internet Café. Participants were also told about the federal government’s Emergency Broadband Benefit (later replaced by the Affordable Connectivity Program, see box below).
In the spring of 2021, the internet service provider Spectrum donated 25 tablet computers to the Gibson Center and $2,500 to help continue the program.
Dick Cooke, 75, was one of Andrea Libby's computer students. Although Cooke admits he gets “bummed” when he can’t retain something he learned in a training session, he has mastered several computer skills, including Zooming for a telehealth session. He also learned how to use Google and he speaks rather than types his searches. Cooke, who has a strong New England accent, admits that it can take three or four tries before his question is understood.
Outreach through the Mount Washington Valley age-friendly network pushed the program to a level higher.
“Our age-friendly community consists of the 12 towns and 15 other organizations, including libraries, churches, hospitals, housing coalitions, public health agencies and a whole lot of other people who are part of the organization’s steering committee,” says Jackson. “We have strong email engagement with the steering committee members, who are either public officials in the towns or executive directors of the organizations. The first emails about activities are sent to them and they in turn distribute the news to their members.”
In October 2021, the Gibson Center — in partnership with the Conway Public Library and Carroll County Coalition for Public Health — was one of only 15 awardees nationwide of a National Institutes of Health grant for a program called the All of Us Community Award for Health Programming.
The $15,000 grant is being used to create a four-part virtual speaker series on telehealth-related topics, purchase 30 Chromebook laptop computers and provide privacy booths in the library and Gibson Center for use during the telehealth visits.
“The grant was written with a huge amount of backing and supported documentation about the age-friendly network,” explains Jackson. “For example, we’re in contact with the visiting nurses, so we can say, ‘If any of your homebound clients needs a Chromebook, or needs telehealth training, refer them to us.’ We can use the structure of the age-friendly community to enhance the effectiveness of the grant. In fact, I'm sure that's why we got the grant.”
The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP)
A program of the Federal Communications Commission, the Emergency Broadband Benefit launched in May 2021 to help individuals and households that are struggling to afford internet service. Qualified applicants under the ACP receive a discount of up to $30 per month toward broadband service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for households on qualifying tribal lands.
Reporting by Amy Lennard Goehner | Page published April 2022
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AARP Rural Lab
This article comes out of the lessons learned and shared through the AARP Rural Lab, a monthly online gathering of leaders from rural and remote communities invited by AARP state offices. Participants receive access to expert assistance and opportunities for connecting with peers nationwide.
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