Technology is often thought of as a luxury, especially in the context of the latest gadgets and features, but technology is also essential in accessing information and being able to communicate with others.

In the wake of the pandemic, the “digital divide” has become even more evident. As many programs and services shifted online, access to technology emerged as a basic need—as critical to staying safe as food and shelter, especially for seniors.

As we celebrate Seniors’ Week across Alberta, we’re exploring how they turned to technology to help with social isolation, and stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Today, many seniors have not had the opportunity to learn the skills required to comfortably use and navigate current technology. Shirley D’Souza, a space user host with 1000 Voices at the North of McKnight Community Hub, says that prior to the pandemic, many seniors avoided technology, and instead chose to gather in person in community spaces like the Hub, located at the Genesis Centre.

Typically, 1000 Voices would have thousands of people coming through their doors to connect in person, but with the onset of the pandemic, and public health guidelines to stay physically distant, many seniors are left feeling isolated in their homes.

In the early days of the pandemic, 1000 Voices and their volunteers shifted from fostering in-person connections to moving out into the community and meeting community members where they were, at home.

“We decided that our role was going to be checking up on people, asking questions like “How are you?” and “What do you need?” via phone calls,” says Rumnik Muker, program manager and hubs site lead at 1000 Voices. It was through these conversations that the critical need for access to basic technology, and the skills needed to use it, first became apparent.

The first step was giving people access to technology.

To address this barrier, 1000 Voices and Trellis received funding from the COVID-19 Community Response Fund to purchase low-cost tablets for families and individuals who were in exceptional need of devices in order to access the internet.

Funding also supported seniors who had technology devices, but their internet bills were a barrier to using them effectively. By having this one bill taken care of, these seniors had some relief to focus on food and rent, and navigating other challenges of a pandemic.

Step two was building the skills needed to use technology, and use it well.

As D’Souza explains, “Many seniors were so hesitant and fearful to even touch a button. They were afraid of what might happen if they were to push the wrong button.” Sharing personal information online also was a cause for concern.

“We had volunteers from within the [Genesis] Centre, and we recruited more, who would drive to someone’s house and call them from the driveway to walk them through the process of creating an email account, for example,” adds Muker.

Teaching seniors to use technology was a lot of work, especially in the early days of the pandemic and public health restrictions, but the quality of life improvement for seniors who received support has been drastic.

“Technology has made the outside world smaller and my world bigger.” – local senior

Having the skills to navigate the online world meant that many seniors now felt comfortable connecting with their doctor online, ensuring they stayed on top of their own health amidst a global health crisis. Many were also able to purchase their groceries online, and avoid traveling to get the essentials.

One of the biggest improvements though, says Muker, “has been the gradual effects that have taken place, beyond that initial skill-building moment.” Many seniors have used the skills they’ve learned to expand their connections, forming groups and hosting online events, including weddings, birthday celebrations, and cultural events.

One senior in particular had never touched a technological device in her life, but now regularly hosts an online knitting circle in her community to keep other seniors connected.

Another had lost her regular walk with her grandson but now connects via online games, and teaches others to do the same.

“Technology is a boon and has changed my life totally.” – local senior

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently stated that, “Internet access is a basic human right, like access to health care or water.”

Providing seniors with the supports to meet their basic needs, including access to technology, enables these individuals and families to move beyond day-to-day survival.

Thanks to your support, seniors have a chance to spend more time and energy engaging in their community, building strong connections, and more resilience.

Give basic needs items—sign up for our Basic Needs Round-Up, in partnership with the Calgary Stampede, and help our community’s most vulnerable residents like our seniors access the everyday essentials that are often out of reach. Because united, we make the biggest difference.

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