KINGSTON, R.I. — May 19, 2021 — During the height of the pandemic late last year, Warwick resident Patricia Fenton got the call she had been waiting for — her new grandson had been born, a rare bit of joyous news during one of the most difficult years in recent memory for all of us.
However, the news generated mixed feelings. Before the COVID-19 vaccines had been developed, Fenton, like most people of a certain age, had to carefully avoid most people to avoid contracting the virus. She would be unable to hold her family’s newest addition for the foreseeable future. But thanks in part to the University of Rhode Island’s Engaging Generations Cyber-Seniors program, she was able to meet her infant grandson, Archer, and spend some time with him, if only virtually.
“I live alone and I was kind of marooned here, and then my first grandchild was born. I was able to see him almost every other day because I had learned to Zoom,” Fenton said of her 5-month-old grandson during a recent meeting of the Cyber-Seniors group, conducted over that same virtual platform. “I’m really thankful for all your help setting that up. I was able to see him all the time. And now, I just finally got to meet him the other day, and I felt like I already knew him.”
The digiAGE Initiative — a partnership among the URI College of Health Sciences, the Rhode Island Office of Healthy Aging and Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island — aims to increase digital literacy in older adults, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has limited their contact with the outside world. The program provides participants with smart devices like iPads, wireless internet hotspots, and the training they need to access online resources, work and meet remotely, and virtually communicate with family and friends.
“Our team at URI is thrilled to offer this intergenerational program to improve digital inclusion among the older population, especially for older adults from areas hardest hit by the pandemic,” said Skye Leedahl, associate professor of human development & family science and leader of the Engaging Generations program. “For students, this service-learning opportunity promotes leadership skills, builds confidence and empowers them to work with the diverse older population.”
URI students and faculty members provide tech support and training at no cost to participants. During a recent Zoom meeting, senior Health Studies major Hadassah Duplan led the group through a recap of the year and asked them to relay their personal highlights of the program. Most participants used their time to thank their student mentors for their patience and help.
“My mentor was Grace, and I have to say she matched her name,” said Cyber Seniors member Nancy Krawczyk. “She was very patient with me and answered all my questions. I really learned a lot.”
“I was green as a gourd when I started, and now I know how to do it all,” Lyla Panichas said of Duplan, her mentor. “Hadassah was really wonderful.”
Member Dorothy Fields told the group the knowledge she gained in the program has helped her feel less isolated during the pandemic, especially after having to say goodbye to her beloved pets.
“I live alone; I don’t have any dogs anymore, so this group has sort of taken the place of my pet,” Fields said. “And I can do all my online banking, food delivery, everything I need to do I can do on this iPad, so I’m really grateful.”
Initiatives like Engaging Generations are critical to increasing needed access to technology and ensure inclusion in the digital space for older adults. More than 40 percent of adults older than 65 lack broadband access, and 25 percent of older adults are not online at all, according to the Pew Research Center. The numbers are even higher in lower-income areas. That equates to 30,000 older adults in the community who lack access to technology, according to a Rhode Island Office of Health Aging survey, leaving them without access to information and resources critical to everyone’s health and well-being.
The Engaging Generations Cyber Seniors program received initial funding from the Rhode Island Office of Healthy Aging (through federal CARES Act funding) and Blue Cross Blue Shield of RI to conduct the digiAGE Pilot Program that has provided iPads, hotspots and tech mentorship to older adults from some of the areas hardest hit by COVID-19, including Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls, West Warwick, Coventry and Warwick.
Given the success of the initial program, Leedahl’s team intends to roll it out statewide. The program would appreciate support from external contributors to provide devices and internet access to older adults and to support student mentors. To contribute to the program, visit the URI Foundation & Alumni Engagement giving page.