Hidden Connectivity Crisis for Older Adults

 This guide is intended for:

  • Developers and innovators in the technology sector 

  • Business leaders and strategists with a 50+ target market and/or aging workforce

Use this guide to:

  • Inform how you include the 50+ demographic in your digital products and services from a trusted source

  • Close the digital divide among the 50+ demographic 

Getting older adults online has never been more urgent. The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted our nation’s systems for social support, communications, and health care, demonstrating that home-based internet and digital skills are an essential lifeline for older adults. Unfortunately, large proportions of Americans over the age of 65 remain offline—a problem that many people recognize from personal experience, but until now have lacked statistical data to underpin anecdotal observations and provide a solid  foundation for policies intended to close the gap.

In 2020, OATS, with the support of the Humana Foundation, commissioned the most comprehensive research study ever  undertaken in this area, conducted by two leading academics: John Horrigan from The Technology Policy Institute, and Erin York Cornwell from Cornell University. This new research presents a detailed portrait of digitally disconnected older adults in America—how many people remain offline, what demographics are disproportionately affected, which barriers continue to perpetuate non-participation, and how existing connectivity resources match up with patterns of need.

In addition, this report will provide a blueprint for action. OATS is a social change organization and our partnership with Humana aims to create new collaborations and systems of practice that will bring more than a million older adults online. We have analyzed the research data in the context of existing programs, options for building new initiatives, and potential frameworks for lasting change. Our recommendations offer a path toward creating a more comprehensive and resilient system for bringing older  Americans online and supporting them in achieving meaningful outcomes in health, social engagement, and other areas of life.

This report contains several overarching takeaways:

  1. Digital disconnectedness is a serious national crisis. More than three decades after national policymakers became aware of the technology gap for older adults, our research shows that nearly 22 million American seniors do not have wireline

    broadband access at home. The scope and persistence of the problem are shocking reminders that nearly half of older Americans live with technological barriers that restrict social and other essential connections.

  2. Technology is exacerbating social divisions and inequalities. Our research found disturbing correlations between digital disengagement and race, disability, health status, educational attainment, immigration, rural residence, and, of course, income. As America seeks to provide equal opportunity for all, the lack of internet access at home threatens to widen already serious divides between the privileged and disadvantaged.

  3. Existing programs to help seniors get online are showing promise but are still too fragmentary and limited to complete the job. A review of existing digital inclusion efforts targeting seniors found a hodgepodge of offerings, with large sections of the country served by no significant low-cost offerings or age-friendly initiatives. The programs that do exist are virtually all sponsored by telecommunications companies in collaboration with nonprofit partners, with no direct public sector support.

  4. The solutions to the problem are well within our reach. This is not the race to the moon, announced in 1960 before the technology existed to accomplish the task. We know how to get seniors online right now, and this report lays out the steps to achieve our goal of eliminating the age-based differential in home broadband use.

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