By Jasmine Weatherby
A recent report from Older Adults Technology Services (OATS), commissioned by The Humana Foundation, shows that at least 22 million seniors in America lack internet connectivity. This number, often referred to as the digital divide, represents 42 percent of the senior population.
The digital divide matters to healthcare organizations because it leaves the most vulnerable segment of society without access to the services and information that are increasingly moving online. Seniors that are most likely to be offline are those with functional impairments (Two times more likely to lack connectivity than their non-impaired counterparts), Black and Latino seniors (2.5 and 3.3 times more likely to lack connectivity than white seniors) and seniors with less than a high school degree or an income below $25,000 (10 times more likely than the general population to lack connectivity).
Impact of COVID
At no time have the stark inequities of lack of digital connectivity been more apparent than during the COVID-19 pandemic. During a time when everyone was encouraged to stay at home to avoid exposure to the disease, seniors without internet connection could not access the services that so many of us came to rely on. For these individuals, lack of internet meant not taking advantage of tools that could help reduce feelings of loneliness, inability to manage finances online or use telehealth services to receive care safely at home during quarantine.
Further, during the pandemic internet connectivity became an important tool for reliable and up-to-date information, and many COVID-19 testing and vaccine sites required appointments to be made online. Humana’s Bold Goal team identified the senior population as one of the highest risk groups for loneliness and social isolation, with a 64 percent increased risk for dementia and a 29 percent increased risk for premature death due to isolation.
Understanding the potential risks of loneliness and isolation to health outcomes and the increasing role internet connectivity has played in providing social connection makes addressing them a critical component of public health response. As such, Humana has implemented a set of programs to address the problems of loneliness and isolation. These programs are described in detail at https://tinyurl.com/3z64te2b.
Beginning in 2008, Humana opened 13 community centers for seniors across the country to provide social activities, a range of classes related to health and fitness and assistance with healthcare plan benefits to community members. There are now 46 Humana Neighborhood Center locations today.
Understanding social connection as an important social determinant of health, Humana knows that these centers are important to senior well-being and serve as an important connection point in their respective communities.
However, the pandemic required Humana to rethink how the centers provide service, and further shed light on the inequities experienced by those without internet access. As the centers’ offerings moved online, many regular program participants who lacked internet were left without a way to connect to programs they had previously enjoyed. Although the in-person centers are in the process of reopening, the pandemic offered a deeper understanding of the importance of internet connectivity, and Humana recognizes the need to bridge the gap.
Recognizing internet connectivity as a public health crisis for senior populations, starting in 2018 Humana and The Humana Foundation began making significant investments to improve connectivity for seniors in Louisville and across the country.
The Humana Foundation partnered with OATS to create the Aging Connected report, which also identifies ways to address connectivity and get more seniors online. The partnership and report findings spurred the Aging Connected campaign, which is bridging the connectivity gap for older adults through a four-pronged approach:
1. Helping seniors understand the value of connectivity.
2. Prioritizing social equity and inclusion.
3. Expanding access to low-cost internet.
4. Developing content, communities, and experiences for older adults to increase utilization of internet services, including healthcare.
Focusing on these four areas will connect seniors with affordable internet offerings in their area and empower seniors to use the internet safely, which will enable them to better participate in the basic activities and services that so many of us take for granted.
Creating real change in large scale internet connectivity will require coordination across the public, private and non-profit sectors. Humana and The Humana Foundation are committed to this work and call on other healthcare leaders to address connectivity to improve senior health.
To learn more about the Aging Connected Initiative visit agingconnected.org.
-Jasmine Weatherby is a Senior Corporate Communications Professional for The Humana Foundation.
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