Santa Clara County leaders this week set in motion a plan to connect older adults to technology, a need that has become more urgent since widespread shelter-in-place orders went into effect.
Concerns about the impact of social isolation have grown as the majority of senior services have transitioned online. The increasing use of telehealth and virtual healthcare has also made closing the digital divide among older adults more pressing.
Despite a scattering of local nonprofits working to connect older adults to technology, a countywide, publicly funded initiative is still needed, according to a report presented to the Santa Clara Board of Supervisors Aug. 11. Supervisors unanimously approved the action plan outlined in the report.
The report recommends a three-year Age Friendly Action Plan that includes measures such as incorporating low-income adults into all countywide digital inclusion projects and fostering partnerships with private organizations that can help provide the resources to expand the program.
"As the county continues with shelter-in-place orders and transitions into a new normal, known connectivity inequities in Santa Clara County are reinforced," according to the report. "This has opened opportunities for correcting these inequities at a time where internet connectivity is a lifeline to many families, children and youth and older adults."
The action plans calls for creating a Digital Inclusion Workgroup through the county's Seniors' Agenda, which worked to make Santa Clara County the first in the country to get its cities designated as age-friendly by the World Health Organization.
"The board's focus on this issue has already led to collaboration and partnership with Age Friendly Santa Clara and among the cities in this county," Susan Nash, the Age Friendly Project manager for San Jose, told supervisors. "So you will have partners."
The report also suggests the county partner with an organization that can recycle county staff computers, tablets and smartphones for use by low-income seniors. Libraries also are experimenting loaning out technology, though the report suggests such a program would be better suited for private support.
"Sheltering in place is critical for older adults who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 and, yet, this demographic proportionately lacks access to broadband connections and internet-enabled devices," said Supervisor Dave Cortese who asked for the report.
Nearly 20,000 people 65 and older in Santa Clara County do not have a computer in their household, according to the report. Low-income older adults are disproportionately affected by the lack of access to technology.
"Seniors need access for their sanity, for their healthcare, increasingly," Rod Sinks, a Cupertino council member, told supervisors. "This is good policy, and it makes good sense, particularly at this time, to do everything we can to connect our older adults."
Initiatives to close the digital divide in the South Bay have been rolled out on a local level. Many have focused on getting students access to technology, as the lockdowns in March disrupted the school year and a second wave of restrictions have kept students homeschooled.
Santa Clara County pledged $7.1 million to get students online ahead of the start of the school year on Aug. 10. In San Jose, the Digital Inclusion Fund, established in February 2019, doles out $24 million in grants over a 10-year period with the aim of providing access to technology and increasing digital literacy skills.
Although the Digital Initiative Fund includes seniors, the Age Friendly Action Plan would be the first digital inclusion initiative aimed specifically at older adults.
"I really commend what the board has done for the young people and the students," said Diana Miller, the project manager of the Seniors' Agenda. "I hope at some point in time and when there's another round of stimulus money, we might look at older adults and what their needs are."