Digital Divide Could Heighten Risk for Quarantined Seniors

The coronavirus is more dangerous for those over the age of 80, the population that also tends to be less tech-savvy. Without technology access, they could be missing important information, medication access or doctor appointments.

(TNS) — Public health crises like what we are seeing with the spread of the coronavirus usually affect older adults most strongly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the overall death rate from the disease at 2.3% of people who are infected, but that rate is 15% among adults over age 80 and 49% of critically ill adults. Entire cities may be locked down for an extended time, and when that happens, cellphones and smart devices become the best and sometimes only way to obtain vital information and resources.

Older individuals who are more susceptible to the virus deserve increased attention. Yet, plans for the aging population are largely forgotten. There is a digital generation gap that leaves out many of the most vulnerable. We need to rethink crisis management to communicate with older adults.

This is especially critical in Texas, where increased longevity is reshaping the population in fundamental ways. Four million Texans are 65 or older. According to the U.S. census, the Austin-Round Rock metropolitan area had the second-fastest growing population of adults age 65 and older in the country.

Imagine a public health crisis sequesters a younger person at home for a couple of weeks. She can keep in touch with colleagues at work via Slack and Zoom, and with friends and siblings via Instagram and Snapchat. She can follow the news about the crisis on a variety of digital media. If she starts to feel sick, she can peruse health-related websites and contact a doctor's office electronically.

Now imagine this situation for someone who is elderly and lives alone. He may have only a few days' worth of groceries and medications that might run low. He may phone the agencies that usually help him, but no one is there to answer. Nursing home residents are at even greater risk because many of them are frail and living in close quarters.

These examples highlight the gap. Only 40% of older adults use smartphones; the rate declines to 17% among adults age 80 plus. Internet use is slightly higher, but more than a quarter of older adults lack access to the internet. As such, a public health crisis becomes an information crisis for older adults.

In the absence of information, older adults may underestimate risks or remain in place when they should not. They may be unable to contact the social services that typically support them with rides, meals, daily medical needs or therapies. For many older adults, these services are not optional, and the absence of these services may precipitate irreversible declines.

We need to invest in training the most vulnerable generation to use digital technology and support service organizations that cater to seniors. Smartphone apps or other technologies that have the potential to facilitate communication in late life may be too complicated for some adults or may require fine motor skills that are too demanding. Many public and nonprofit organizations regularly serve older adults. Groups such as Meals on Wheels, Area Associations on Aging, and senior centers, with some minimal increase in funding, could be set up to deliver timely high-quality information during public health crises. Connecting older adults who are tech-savvy with their less technologically-minded peers may increase the number of older adults who have access to information.

Access to information is vital during any crisis, but more so when it comes to public health. We need to keep in mind that a global health crisis can quickly turn into an information crisis if we don't address the problem head on.

Fingerman is a professor of human development and family sciences and director of the Texas Aging and Longevity Center at the University of Texas. Xie is a professor in the School of Nursing and School of Information at the university.

©2020 Austin American-Statesman, Texas. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing editors or management.