The Pandemic Has Accelerated The Need To Close The Digital Divide For Older Adults

By Susan Nash

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown into stark relief two already disturbing trends from the last couple of decades. First, as the population ages, many older adults find themselves socially isolated, often with life-threatening consequences. Second, older adults have lagged behind the rest of the population in having the means and ability to access the Internet. The convergence of these two issues, each bad enough pre-pandemic, has created a situation where many older adults who comply with the shelter-in-place orders may find themselves completely shut off from the rest of the world.

Bridging the digital divide is no longer a luxury.

The spreading social isolation among seniors is well-documented. The Center for Disease Control describes loneliness and social isolation as “serious public health risks.” Nearly 1 in 4 adults aged 65 and over are considered socially isolated, and nearly 1 out of 3 adults over 45 feel lonely. Social isolation increases the chance of premature death and rivals the risks of smoking, obesity and inactivity. Older adults now are living longer than 20 years ago but are more likely to live alone and to be far less socially engaged than the previous generation.1

While many older adults are well-versed in technology, as a group they lag behind younger populations. A recent Pew study found that only 73 percent of people over 65 use the Internet:

Internet use is even more limited among those ages 75 and up:

As with the country at large, older adults in California have limited Internet access in their own homes: only 69 percent of those 65 and over have broadband access, and for those 75 or older, the number declines to 58 percent.2

And for older adults without home broadband access, the closure of libraries and community centers that might have been sites for Internet use (and for social engagement) removes those options.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 has accelerated the delivery of critical services online, including telehealth, grocery delivery, and opportunities for online engagement. These options, obviously, are only available to those who already had online access before the world abruptly changed.

COVID-19’s forced closure of schools led pretty quickly to a recognition that students without Internet access are not going to be able to keep up. While the problem is far from solved, the City of San Jose recently took fast action to initiate the delivery of tablets and connectivity to students who need them. Other local governments are also responding. But what about the parallel problem at the other end of the age spectrum?

Around the country, many organizations and government entities are actively trying to reach isolated older adults with technology. New York City has begun distributing the first of 10,000 internet-connected tablets free to its older residents, along with a year of free technology and digital literacy training. The State of Georgia’s Division of Aging Services has received funding under the CARES Act to provide Internet access, devices and training to its older population. Non-profits like Senior Planet and The Oasis Institute have developed free online programming, including Zoom training, that is being made available nationwide.

These efforts are a good start, but the need to focus on the technology needs of older people, who will not be leaving their homes much any time soon, is far from over. Although California is now easing the stay-at-home restrictions – we are in early Stage 2 of the roadmap for reopening as of this writing – people over 65 have been lumped into a group that is advised to stay home until Stage 4, when the orders are lifted entirely and it is deemed safe, for example, for live audiences to attend basketball games. Even without COVID-19, our increased life expectancy and aging population make digital access and training an ongoing and urgent need.

The solution will require cooperation between Internet Service Providers, tech companies (both to design easy-to-use devices and to offer “senior” discounts, as has been done for years in the education field) and organizations that serve older people. And teaching older people unfamiliar with technology the tools they need to engage can be a high-touch undertaking, increasing the need for more programs like Teeniors and Cyberseniors that engage younger people in helping older adults navigate online.

With or without a pandemic, digital access has become one of the main ways we engage, and we need to be sure that everyone is included.


Susan Nash is a Consulting Scholar at the Stanford Center on Longevity and an Encore Fellow with Age-Friendly San Jose.