The shift to the use of online tools and accounts has been happening for several years and has only accelerated after COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. These opportunities range from virtual family get togethers to electronically accessing Medicare accounts. But those without access or digital education are left behind. Older adults and persons with disabilities served by adult protective services (APS) may lack accessibility or connection to the technology and the online supports available. APS programs and community partners can work together to empower clients to build technological literacy and create peer support.
Accessibility Challenges and Changes
Internet access is becoming a necessity not just a luxury, including access to government resources, combating social isolation, accessing reliable electronic information, and engaging with healthcare. According to the Humana Foundation & Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) study, Aging Connected: Exposing the Hidden Connectivity Crisis for Older Adults, age, income, and educational attainment are the strongest predictors of whether an individual has in-home broadband internet and 42% of adults age 65 and older do not have in-home internet. People with functional impairments are two times more likely to lack internet than those with no impairments. The federal Affordable Connectivity Program was established as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to work towards more affordable in-home internet for low-income individuals and families. Find out more at https://affordableconnectivity.gov/.
Lack of infrastructure support also impacts APS clients in low-income areas. Digital redlining, less investment by internet providers in infrastructure in low-income and minority communities, can cause broadband internet to be unreliable or non-existent. Unreliable speeds can prevent the use of virtual tools such as video-based doctor or mental health practitioner visits. Congress began to address this issue in 2021, again as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act requiring the Federal Communications Commission to make rules preventing “digital discrimination of access” which begins in 2023. Lack of infrastructure affects not only APS clients but workers and community partners in remote workplaces. Look for future developments in this area.
OATS, referenced earlier in this post, began in 2004 as a 10-week course in a Brooklyn housing project and expanded to create technology-themed community centers, called Senior Planet Centers, in New York City and other states. OATS now has virtual programming and in-person centers. Senior Planet programs include structured multi-week courses as well as individual lectures and workshops such as “Getting Started on Zoom.” Other resources include short “Tech Tip” videos and one on one support. A study of the program by the New York Academy of Medicine found it to be effective with participants and older adults retained the knowledge and skills. They noted learning to use technology not only increases the users access to online resources but can also impact social isolation and build connection with one participant noting that email is preferable due to their hearing deficits impacting telephone usage.
The Lighthouse Project is a pilot in California to provide training through a user-centered approach to residents of senior affordable housing. The Project’s goal is to provide internet access and digital literacy training to enhance wellbeing, increase healthcare service availability, and build communication opportunities. In choosing devices the group went to the users to see what was most needed. Requirements included large screens for vision changes, quality speakers or headsets for hearing challenges, video chat capabilities, styluses to support motor skills, and multilingual accommodations. A unique feature of the effort is using peer and community-based learning.
“Resident Ambassadors” with strong social and technical skills are recruited to become knowledgeable users. The Ambassadors hold office hours to support the community. Small group “pods” are also developed to encourage socialization around the technology and provide tech support. Residents are encouraged to go to their pods first for questions and problem solving. The involvement of pods helps build engagement by utilizing peer support and saving staff time. Initial evaluation found that feelings of social connection increased, and depression scores decreased.
Technology support for clients also includes resources APS provides via the web, apps, resource libraries, and other sources. App and website accessibility fall under the Americans with Disability Act and are important for those receiving APS services. Through funding from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Massachusetts’ Disable Persons Protection Commission (DPPC) with Massachusetts Advocates Standing Strong (MASS), University of Rhode Island, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute is developing an app to support recognition of abuse. The app is targeted at supporting persons with intellectual or developmental disabilities in understanding different types of abuse and reaching out to DPPC or a trusted person. Under the same federal funding they are developing a self-care app. To complete the suite, they are developing a maltreatment reporting app as well.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions they had to pivot to Zoom for tests with users who were comfortable with the platform or had support. DPPC is ensuring that the apps meet audience needs including compatibility with screen readers and an easy, one-step way to reach out. Listen to more about the project start and further development in the April 2022 APS TARC Podcast: Recognize, Report, Respond (R3) - Co-Designing a Technology-Based System With and For People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. From websites to mobile apps, APS materials should meet the needs of older adults and persons with disabilities. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines provide a standard and resources including an “Accessibility Fundamentals Overview” for those getting started.
The Takeaway: Digital Tools are Here to Stay
Digital access, education, and understanding is quickly becoming essential in our communities and many supports for APS clients can be found online. Supporting individuals accessing online resources and building partnerships for technology education is as important as any other service provided. Check out resources below, including the ever-important cyber-security education, and share those in your community.
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