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COVID-19 Showed That Technology Can Be the Great Equalizer

But in the pandemic, some older adults were on the wrong side of the digital divide

By Tom Kamber
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Artist and entrepreneur Virginia Hamlin learned how to conduct all her business online in the pandemic  |  Credit: courtesy of Virginia Hamlin

Horace Mann, the noted 19 century education reformer, once described education as "the great equalizer — the balance wheel of the social machine." He argued that instead of being a benefit reserved for privileged elites, education should serve as a universal force for social cohesion and be universally available as well as valued as a civic necessity.

Nearly 22 million older adults do not have wireline broadband access at home.

Today, after our pandemic year, we might ask whether the digital age is at a similar crossroads, with technology becoming our primary architect of social outcomes.

Technology has the potential to be a "great equalizer," but it is currently an accelerant of social divisions. The severe inequities that burden so many Americans — and older adults in particular — are in many ways made worse by a technology-driven culture and economy that favors individuals from privileged backgrounds.

What the Pandemic Revealed About the Digital Divide

While the tech boom has made it possible to overcome many distinctions of geography, physical capacity and demography, COVID-19 has revealed the digitally disconnected (and again, older adults in particular) suffering from extreme isolation and lack of access to social and economic resources, while the digitally privileged have remained comparatively better connected, informed and cared for.

In January, with support from the Humana Foundation, my Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) from AARP released a landmark report, "Aging Connected," analyzing disparities in technology access and use among older adults. The study noted that nearly 22 million older adults do not have wireline broadband access at home. It also found disturbing correlations between digital disengagement and race, disability, health status, educational attainment, immigration, rural residence and income.

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As America seeks to provide equal opportunity for all, this lack of internet access at home threatens to widen already serious divides between the nation's privileged and disadvantaged.

Much attention has recently been paid to the "homework gap" among students who lack access to the tools they need for schooling during the pandemic. Comparable challenges exist for older adults whose barriers are twofold: a lack of access combined with a technology education gap.

Lack of Technology Can Be Life-Threatening

The consequences for older adults can be life-threatening, as we're now seeing. A recent University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging revealed that "45% of adults over 65 lack online medical accounts that could help them sign up for COVID-19 vaccinations."

Despite the digital divide and the problems it creates, technology itself is unbiased and provides equal access to the world's digital library. If older adults are given access to technology and taught how to use those tools, nothing stands in the way of them using the internet to build a small business, find ways to save money by comparison-shopping online or schedule vaccine appointments necessary to help return our society to normal life.

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Just ask Virginia Hamlin. She's a 76-year-old artist and entrepreneur in Brooklyn, N.Y. who specializes in creating custom ceramic art and unique scarves. During the pandemic, Hamlin — along with many other artists — was forced to move her business online. She learned how to conduct all her business virtually and continued operating her business safely and efficiently in unprecedented circumstances.

Hamlin is an example of how technology can improve the lives of older adults. But more older adults need access to technology and its extraordinary potential for social change. The Aging Connected campaign aims to bring together people and organizations over the next two years to measurably help close the technology gap for older Americans.  

Horace Mann said something else worth remembering in a speech just days before he died in 1859: "Be ashamed to die before you have won some victory for humanity." The problem is clear and the solutions are within our reach. We must work together to make sure the digital age is one that fulfills its promise.

Tom Kamber
Tom Kamber is the executive director of Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) from AARP and Senior Planet. He is also a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging. Read More
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