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We find ourselves in an unprecedented time. With many of our lives uprooted and fragmented, it is hard to imagine that there are members of our community for whom isolation is “business as usual.” But before COVID-19 struck, many seniors were already isolated. Older Americans spend more than half of their time alone and are more likely to live alone than seniors anywhere else in the world.
The health risks of isolation are severe. Forty years of research have produced robust evidence that social isolation significantly increases a person’s risk of mortality, a risk that may rival those of smoking or obesity. It has also been linked to cancer and cardiovascular disease, re-hospitalization, depression, delayed care-seeking, and poor nutrition.
New, COVID-19-specific studies have found that older adults sheltering in place in their homes are experiencing deep isolation and that they report feeling unable to meet their daily needs, from shopping to preparing meals and handling finances. Older adults report feeling that they are a burden to others and live with high levels of distress.
The internet has become essential for maintaining social connections and managing life through quarantine. However, according to the Pew Research Center, 41 percent of seniors don’t have broadband internet at home. This is a national connectivity crisis. Loneliness can be as detrimental to a person’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and without the internet, older adults are the least equipped to stay up-to-date with urgent public information, maintain a network of support and manage their ongoing needs.
The media is replete with stories about work being done to provide children and families with internet-connected devices. For example, VIA, the City of San Antonio, San Antonio Housing Authority, San Antonio ISD and Northside ISD partnered to provide mobile Wi-Fi service to students, using VIAtrans vans equipped with high-speed Wi-Fi networks. The program aims to help close the digital divide for many San Antonio students without reliable internet access.
While those stories and actions are important, an entire generation is missing: there has been comparatively less attention paid to seniors without connectivity. As our city continues to reopen, with various physical distancing rules, there has been little discussion of how we will address the isolation among seniors that has only worsened during COVID-19.
Nonprofit Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) has supported seniors by equipping them with technology and skills for a digital world. In 2018, the organization came to San Antonio with its program Senior Planet. Through Senior Planet San Antonio, OATS offers free programs helping seniors use technology to achieve their personal goals.
In response to the pandemic, all of Senior Planet San Antonio’s technology training programs have been moved online, creating new opportunities for seniors to build the foundational skills they need to stay connected and self-sufficient. In a survey of participants, 93.5% said that the virtual programs help them feel more connected to the world around them. These programs continue to provide a place to connect safely even as the city reopens.
Other community organizations have stepped up in big ways to support older adults, too. Seniors with limited incomes often have to choose between food and medical care. VIA Metropolitan Transit and the San Antonio Food Bank partnered to make sure homebound residents didn’t go hungry during these challenging times. The San Antonio Food Bank’s Project HOPE provides approximately 50-60 pounds of food to almost 2,000 seniors each month, delivered directly to their homes to ensure that older adults are properly fed.
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We must continue to make sure seniors have access to food and medical resources, but we must push for solutions that address San Antonio’s unevenly distributed internet access as well. We urge everyone who is connected to an older adult without internet access to help them to take that step now, and we encourage older adults without internet access to apply for low-cost internet or purchase it outright immediately. We also call on government officials and policymakers to include support for internet and device access for low-income seniors as we reopen our city.
OATS is further convening a task force to comprehensively address the social isolation of seniors in San Antonio. The task force will consist of local older adults, elected officials, nonprofit partners, and other community leaders who have agreed to work collaboratively to provide community-level support and create programs to support large-scale change.
Many older adults value social interactions more than ever before. We challenge you to reach out to older loved ones and neighbors, and to continue to do so even when this crisis has faded. We have to make certain that seniors, who are among those most vulnerable to the virus, are at the top of our community’s mind. We must not forget those who taught us everything we know. ¡Connect todos!