Lookout Ridge’s Shannon Douglas, Director of Recreation, and Doctor Howard Thomas, resident, share a moment on Thomas’ iPad. SUPPLIED PHOTO

Do we do enough to keep our seniors connected online?

BY JOHN SWART, VOICE Correspondent

“If someone really wants to talk to me, they’ll pick up the phone,” grumbles Uncle George, donning his old curmudgeon ball cap. We all have an aunt, uncle, parent, or maybe even a spouse or partner, who feels that using a computer, tablet or smart phone is beyond them, or refuses on principle to become involved.

Many studies, including the Pew Research Center’s “Internet and American Life Project,” confirm there There is no doubt that seniors who are computer literate, even to a small degree, are likely to enjoy many social and health benefits, some of which are summarized below.

There are cognitive benefits. Keeping active physically is important, but social activity also helps to elevate mood and speed the healing process. Using social media and computer games can assist seniors to maintain cognitive function as they age. There’s also the battle against depression . Older adults who use the internet, especially social media, to keep in touch with family and friends, experience 20% fewer incidents of depression. There is increased independence. When seniors can learn about government programs, health advances, music, culture, or fact-check their friends on their own, they will maintain their independence, and frequently their ability to stay in their home, much longer. For those brand new to the internet, these advantages can be life-altering.

A 2013 survey by Statistics Canada shows the trends. In 2010, 40% of Canadians aged 65 and over used the internet. That grew to 47% by 2012, just two years later. For 16 to 44 year olds, the rate is 97%.

Where seniors access the internet is significantly different from the younger population. Almost all seniors, 83%, use the internet from home, while only about 5% use public libraries, 4% use a handheld device, and about 19% use a friend or family’s device.

So how does the Pelham Public Library rank when it comes to supporting senior internet users? Elaine Anderson, Public Services Coordinator for the library, explains that programs available include computing 101, word processing, new Windows versions, etc. The library gives these offerings jazzy names, like “Mousercize,” “Rent-a Geek,” and “Tech Tips.” Most seniors enrolling are in the younger cohort, 65 to 70 years old, and she acknowledges that demand is inconsistent.

“Whenever a new device or product or app appears, we try to do a seminar on it right away. This is because, for seniors, the set-up is most difficult, and we can help with that.” Anderson cites the library’s seminars on Kobo and Pinterest as successes, but says there wasn’t much new in 2016.

The library is also pleased to offer their new, free, one-on-one Tech Tips, in which a knowledgeable volunteer will assist seniors with computer problems they may have. “We try to expose people to [computer use] they might not otherwise try in a safe and inexpensive manner,” says Anderson. When asked about the offerings of Niagara College, she smiles, mentions fees, and then says, “There are no marks given here,” which she believes is important to seniors.

“No one fails. We’d like to think we’ve introduced a lot of people to technology.” Anderson couldn’t offer examples of other public institutions that might fill a similar role, but doesn’t exclude the contributions made by peer groups, church groups, and paid consultants.

Steve Cunnigham, owner of Pelham PC, a Pelham computer sales and service company that makes home visits, says that approximately half his residential business is from seniors, which is more than double seniors’ share of the population. “Seniors biggest service issues aren’t different from general users,” says Cunningham. “Email issues, malware issues, not sure what they should be doing. Often kids give their parents iPads, and then they pick my brain.”

One big concern Cunningham has when helping seniors versus younger clients is seniors’ vulnerability to fraud. “I tell them it’s just like dealing with someone over the phone, or at the doorstep,” says Cunningham. He explains to them that they wouldn’t trust a stranger at their door or on the phone, so they must use the same criteria on the internet, but is concerned about how deceptive email requests can be.

In a comparison of library computer availability, Pelham seems to rank slightly below the regional per-capita average. The Fonthill branch has six computers and the renovated Maple Acre branch will offer four—that’s 10 devices serving a population of approximately 17,000, a per-capita average of 1,700 residents per machine. Grimsby has 15 laptops and 10 tablets, for a per-capita average of 1,000 residents per machine. Wainfleet has 7 devices for its 6,000 residents, the best availability per-capita at 857 residents per machine

There may be an additional factor at play here and that’s rural connectivity. Anyone living below the hill on Highway 20 at Balfour Street will tell tales of woe about irregular internet access over the years. This problem affects a smaller proportion of Pelham’s population than it does Wainfleet’s, however, so the demand for public computers with consistent internet access may be greater in rural areas to the west of Pelham.

Elaine Anderson has seen seniors and kids in Fenwick that have not connected to the internet because of this lack of availability, and says that the loss of opportunity is real—so doubling the number of computers available at the Maple Acre branch appears to meet a need. Also in the works is “SWIFT,” the ultra-high speed broadband network coming to rural communities, including Niagara. Federal and provincial governments invested $180 million in the SWIFT initiative during 2016, and the federal government announced an additional $500 million for extending broadband service to rural and remote communities throughout Canada. Internet providers are also contributing to the costs. Late in 2016, the CRTC ruled that broadband is a basic telecommunications service and all Canadians should have access to it.

This is an encouraging political move that recognizes the need for internet access, and shows a willingness to get kids, seniors and business-people in rural Ontario connected to it. This was a municipality-driven initiative, lead by the Western Ontario Wardens Caucus, a group of 15 small, rural-based municipalities and regions, including Niagara Region.

Seniors’ computer usage is also affected by education and affluence, as you might expect. Studies by the Pew Research Centre, an American think tank, determined that there are two distinct senior user groups. Younger, more educated and affluent seniors have more internet assets, and a better understanding of the benefits of connectivity. Older, less affluent seniors, perhaps with disabilities, are mostly disconnected from today’s digital world.

While Anderson says that enrollment in library programs is inconsistent, and notes that she sees rural families disconnected, Sharon Douglas, Director of Recreation at the Lookout Ridge retirement home, says that many of her residents pay for private tutoring, and that online Christmas shopping by her residents was “huge.” These varied perspectives suggest that properly servicing the broad demographic of Pelham seniors with internet and instruction won’t be accomplished with a one-size-fits-all approach.

A 2012 report by Revera Inc., a major seniors’ services provider, in partnership with Leger Marketing, found that more than half of online seniors older than 75 belong to a social networking site such as Facebook, and more than one-third of them use it daily. Does this indicate that once seniors get into the game, they’re just as likely to love it and get hooked as younger users?

There is no way to tell how a senior will interact with a computer says Dr. Howard Thomas, 85, a retired Welland ophthalmologist and avid computer user. He was the first in Welland to computerize his office, and says he does, “everything” on his iPad — banking, investing, shopping, music downloads, and assisting his friends. He does not use social media, however, and prefers email for sharing jokes. In his experience, “It’s so individual, related to [a given senior’s] family use.”

Interestingly, a large percentage of seniors are given their iPads or laptops as gifts, most frequently by their children and family hoping to encourage them to get connected. “As more and more of their senior peers learn the internet, peer-to-peer coaching is becoming a real factor,” Douglas says with obvious enthusiasm.

Why do some seniors continue to resist?

Computer usage requires at least a basic familiarity with some technical jargon, words that can sound like Swahili when first heard. If even basic computer usage is frustrating, this can pose a hurdle not easily overcome without patient instruction and lots of practice. Physical limitations, the most common being reading difficulty and arthritis, can also be deterrents. Lack of confidence, and the anticipated future need for assistance, stops many seniors from taking on the challenge. A mere 18% of older adults believe that they can learn a new device on their own. Attitude can also be a roadblock. Fully half of older non-users firmly believe that they are not missing out on information or meaningful social benefits. Cost can stop many. For seniors on fixed incomes, the capital expense of buying their own device, and paying a monthly fee for internet connectivity, is beyond what they can afford, or the perceived value that they expect the computer to provide.

When asked how some seniors’ inability to use the internet affected Town of Pelham staff’s communication with them, Mayor Dave Augustyn asserts that the Town makes sure that everyone, not just seniors, has the ability to get the information they need. When Town staff recommended in early 2016 that Pelham go completely electronic for communications, Council voted to send the proposal back for review.

“The Town continues to use statutory mailings for items like property tax bills,” says Augustyn. Mail is also used to provide additional information to residents about Town activities, he says, and Town staff put together a weekly page about events that is published in another newspaper. Augustyn says that staff will visit seniors’ residences directly if necessary to get input on specific issues, such as the recent Public Transit plan.

The Mayor says that Vickie vanRavenswaay, Director of Recreation, Culture and Wellness, visited local residences prior to Council making its decision, and again two months into the project to follow up.

“In some situations, Town staff have visited a resident at their home to explain something or to receive appropriate information or get a signature,” says Augustyn. “It likely happens once-a-month, someone has an accident or can’t get out.”

The Town also relies on the Pelham Seniors’ Advisory Committee and other volunteers to communicate with seniors. The PSAC held “Conversation Cafes” at Sobeys throughout the fall, where seniors, or anyone, could discuss topics, including accessing Town departments, one-on-one with an advisor at no cost.

Various council committees also reach out to seniors at public events in Pelham, such as the Kinsmen Homeshow, Summerfest, and the Farmers’ Market.

As the Pew Research study found, seniors clearly benefit by being connected to the internet, and it appears that Pelham is offering assistance consistent with other communities to seniors wishing to become computer- literate.

The rapid rise in computer use and embrace of social media by seniors indicates that they themselves, their friends and families, and community volunteers, may all provide assistance in different ways.

Pelham would do well to use government programs as they come available, but it appears that Uncle George may be influenced more by those around him than by government initiatives.