Internet, Digital Technology, and Aging Well


From the time we are born, everyone is aging. I just have more experience at it. We should all be so lucky.

So said a speaker at the first listening session at the 2015 White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA) held in Tampa on February 19. The WHCOA listening series started in Tampa and will continue in Phoenix, Seattle, Cleveland, and Boston before the Conference convenes late in 2015. The listening sessions are an opportunity for those interested in public policy to help all Americans age with dignity and health in the most independent living environment that we can manage. Ideally a majority of us wish to stay in our own homes, but if that isn’t possible, then in supportive settings that allow us to experience life as fully as possible for as long as possible.

History of Aging Programs in America

2015 is the 80th anniversary of the passage of the Social Security Act, our country’s first and most comprehensive effort to date to help people survive losing their income due to disability or advanced age. President and Mrs. Roosevelt in the White House spearheaded the passage of the Act to keep sick and old people out of the proverbial poor house. However, it took the federal policy recommendations of the 1961 White House Conference on Aging and the leadership of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to convince Congress to implement Medicare and Medicaid, and the Older Americans Act in 1965, 50 years ago. More recently, WHCOAs have led to Congress-legislated protections for older workers from job discrimination (for those over age 40 because many employers wished to avoid paying into retirement plans or higher health care costs for their workers), annual cost of living adjustments in Social Security benefits, and Long Term Care ombudsmen to help residents of long-term care facilities. Other programs preventing elder abuse, assisting elders with legal issues and adult protective services have been added in the last decade. Millions of Americans—as well as their families—depend on these public pillars to live with less vulnerability and more security.

Women More Likely to Struggle to Age Well

Many advances have been made but challenges associated with aging ill, alone, and with little money still exist. In fact, women in general are much more likely to struggle as they age. From Vickie Elisa with WISER-Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement, I learned that “women earn less money than men and have less to save; caregiving responsibilities make women more likely to leave jobs or work part-time and forfeit pension benefits as a result, and women are more likely to work in occupational sectors, such as the service industry, where pension benefits are less common.” Women also live longer on average than men with 71% of the 85+ age population being women. Therefore, they have more opportunity to outlive their savings, partners and spouses, and supportive friends.

White House Conference on Aging in 2015

Nora Super, Executive Director, White House Conference on Aging

Nora Super, Executive Director, White House Conference on Aging

Nora Super, Executive Director of the 2015 White House Conference on Aging, explained in her welcome the purpose of the Conference.

The coming months will be a time for us to engage in a dialogue and build a shared vision on how to continue to maximize the contributions of Americans as we age, and how to advance priorities such as healthy aging, a secure retirement, accessing the services and supports older Americans need to remain in their communities, and protecting older Americans from financial exploitation, abuse, and neglect.

My Three Goals

I attended the one-day session with three goals. I wished to continue advocating for a high quality of life for people as they age, especially as they become more dependent on others because of declining health and finances. Of course, I knew being there would help me become better informed because of the many experts and practitioners’ advanced study and experience. Second, as an Encore Tampa Bay volunteer (thank you Bevan Rogel), I wanted to promote baby boomers finding entrepreneurial and employment opportunities that allow them to combine a paycheck with their passion and purpose to help others, sort of a variation of Joline Godfrey’s book title of “Making Money, Having Fun, and Doing Good.” And as a Women’s Learning Studio founder, I wanted to see how digital technologies and connections would surface as key supports for older people as panels of experts and discussion groups convened throughout the day.

What About Computer Technology? The Answer Is…

In the closing plenary session after the priorities of the four group discussions around healthy aging, long-term care and social supports, retirement security, and elder justice had been reported,

Kathy Greenlee, Assistant Secretary on Aging, HHS

Kathy Greenlee, Assistant Secretary on Aging, HHS

Assistant Secretary for Aging at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Kathy Greenlee asked the question that was on my mind: “Did technology come up in the discussions around healthy aging, retirement security, elder justice, long-term care and social supports?” At first, silence from the four panelists. Then Jeff Johnson, Florida AARP, said “we did not talk deeply about it in our group.” He followed up by talking about applications in development—non-intrusive monitoring devices—to help family members stay in touch with their elders who reside far away. Bevan Rogel said that “technology has changed our life” and made many things possible for older entrepreneurs to work outside traditional workplaces.  The Elder Justice panelist spoke about the need to have better data systems accessible to more authorities to better enforce elder abuse laws. The Healthy Aging specialist mentioned the work by Georgia Tech to design and build a tech smart house with universal design principles to allow people to age safely and comfortably in their preferred residences.

The discussion made me think. Why did I believe that digital technology and the internet would help people age more happily or healthily than they could without it?

First, look at the sidebar to see how digital literacy has improved my second mother’s life.sidebaruse

Second, in a global economy, we need skills and tools to work with people elsewhere. Effectively using communication and collaboration tools online allows us to work at a distance with employers, customers, and co-learners in community of practice. Many more life+work options are possible if we know where to find and maintain them.

Third, government will not be able to respond to all the needs of baby boomers as we grow old and require assistance to live independently. We need to help ourselves with movements like the Village Network that started in Boston only eight years ago. Villages are:

member-based neighborhood networks that help people stay in their homes as they age, by making where they live into aging-friendly communities, overlaying services and community. … [with a] nonprofit organization providing “concierge services,” one-stop shopping for transportation, home-care, house maintenance, medical, and care-management services.

They are set up by community volunteers and rely heavily on internet-based connections to facilitate mutual support and social opportunities.

Fourth, paying household bills, monitoring bank accounts, seeking assistance from national credit reporting bureaus for identity theft or other credit issues, requesting projected Social Security earnings statements, applying for Affordable Health Care coverage, and filing annual business reports all require using digital tools and email accounts as well.

Fifth, we have multiple generation families living together. That means grandparents raising grandchildren. They need to be able to access and track class assignments on a school website to help their grandkids follow through with homework. It means 74 year olds, many still working, caring for their 95 year old parents with multiple health care needs and providers. Knowing how to access information and share information with doctors and advanced nurse practitioners, as well as self-administering diagnostic tools for conveying status reports to health providers are already vitally important. Learning from fellow caregivers online is another critical support that people need to know how to do.

These are a few things that come to mind for me; it is by no means an exhaustive list.

That’s why when I hear people reject knowing how to use digital tools or saying things like “I’m just not good with technology,” I have to step back, calm down, and accept it is their phobia talking. And then I offer baby steps to help them grow their competence. (I was there once, too, and had to climb over a mountain of fear to get to where I am today.) The Women’s Learning Studio exists to help women and nonprofits learn to make better use of technology in work and life. So I’ll take a line from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and invite you to join Lisa and me to advocate for digital literacy for people of all ages. Someday, if we’re lucky, we will all be old. Let’s help each other make the most of our time together.


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  1. […] me to explore learning from diverse perspectives, the impact of organizational silos on learning, aging well with internet-connected technology, fitness at work, and the tyranny of algorithms among other technology-related topics. Even when I […]

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