CEDAR RAPIDS — Marilyn Jensen, 85, never thought she’d be swapping Saturday lunches with friends for morning chats with them over Zoom.
Her first few attempts to learn the online video conferencing service were frustrating. Her computer didn’t have a microphone or a camera, but she enjoyed listening to everyone else’s conversations just the same.
Although she now has a microphone, she prefers not to be on camera on a Saturday morning anyway. “I’m usually in my nightgown,” she said with a laugh.
Since Iowa began seeing cases of the coronavirus in mid-March, Jensen has been staying at home in Coralville as much as possible. She texts and calls with her doctor when she needs prescription refills, Facebook messages with her children and has her son bring her groceries.
The importance of the internet has only increased during the coronavirus pandemic with people being more reliant on ordering groceries online, seeing a doctor aver telehealth and keeping in touch with family and friends virtually.
That can be difficult for older Iowans who aren’t as technologically savvy or for people in rural Iowa without adequate broadband, said AARP Iowa Advocacy Director Anthony Carroll.
While there is a divide between younger and older Iowans’ use of technology, that divide is shrinking.
According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, the last available data, 42 percent of adults 65 and older own a smartphone, compared with just 18 percent in 2013; and 67 percent of adults 65 and older use the internet at home.
AARP is “ramping up our game,” Carroll said, offering online classes about how to use electronic devices.
“It’s a little bit of the chicken and the egg,” Carroll said. AARP is trying to educate older adults about how to access medical information, social programs and groceries online, but first people have to know how to log on to those classes.
Sending out mailers is a big part of it, Carroll said. So is peer-to-peer learning.
“My mother is in her 80s, and she is now using FaceTime and Google Hangouts. (A few weeks ago) she taught her older sister how to use Google Hangout. You have those success stories,” Carroll said.
Milt Knutson, 81, of Coralville, has been learning Zoom, FaceTime, texting and email with the help of his grandchildren, who live Texas.
“I’m almost full-time computering,” Knutson said. “I enjoy the challenge.”
At the Family Caregivers Center of Mercy, a department of Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids, older adults have been “resilient and successful” in learning video conferencing to access educational classes and support groups, said Abby Martin, manager of the center.
The center offered book studies, art, music, chair yoga, gardening and other classes in person before the coronavirus. Since mid-March, all groups have been virtual. People without access to the internet have still been able to participate via phone, Martin said.
The pandemic has created a renewed sense of urgency for broadband, and making sure older Iowans in rural areas can access telehealth and stay connected online.
Heather Gate, director of Digital Inclusion with Connected Nation, which develops public-private partnerships to expand broadband access, said over 300,000 Iowans don’t have access to wired, high-speed internet, one-third of adults over 65 years old don’t have access to the internet and 40 percent of senior adults don’t have basic digital skills.
The coronavirus “has amplified the urgency to solve those problems,” Gate said. “The idea that some people are sitting at home without any devices is the epitome of lack of digital equity.”
Public Health officials have probably never thought about the digital divide until a global pandemic forced them to, Gate said.
“A lot of people are forced to start reckoning with the digital divide,” Gate said. “States have to have broadband plans ... it’s not just a government issue. It’s a partnership with organizations such as libraries, community centers and senior centers.”
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