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The last real disaster Bonnie Weiss lived through was San Francisco’s 1989 earthquake. Even watching a piece of chimney break through her living room window didn’t prepare her to live alone during a global pandemic, she says. Weiss is nearing 80 years old, and has no children. Her partner, who’s ill and more susceptible to catching coronavirus, lives 30 miles away. She wishes she could hug or cuddle or hold hands with him, or with anyone. But San Francisco just extended its shelter-in-place, so at least until the end of May, that will be impossible.
“We’re all going through it together,” she said. “That’s the only thing that’s a little consoling.”
As days stretch into weeks, Weiss has been moving parts of her social and work life online, little by little. For years, she’s taught college classes and retirement community lectures on musical theater, like “Dazzling Dames of Broadway” and “The Genius of Sondheim.” Now, she’s taken them to Zoom. “It keeps me busy, keeps me working, keeps me making a living,” she said. “But I do it mainly for the joy.”
Instead of visits with friends, she looks forward to calls twice a week from the Friendship Line, a 24-hour hotline and check-up service established by San Francisco’s Institute on Aging in the 1970s. “It’s nice to hear a caring voice who has some concern.”
Already, moving lectures and happy hours onto video chat screens has become almost a social distancing cliché. But for millions of older adults, many of whom are particularly susceptible to loneliness, being able to navigate the vast sea of online resources — beyond just Zoom — can be central to their resilience.
For many, the crisis has motivated them to learn and expand their use of these technologies for the first time. And given the uncertainty of when and how the pandemic will end, these skills may be crucial to their process of adjusting to whatever the “new normal” may be — especially if it’s one where older people are encouraged to continue some physical distancing for longer than their younger counterparts.
Still, the coronavirus crisis and its ripple effects are borne differently by people of different classes, races, geographies and personalities within generations. Some older adults are afraid they’ll live out their final years in fear and with limited mobility; others have embraced their new lifestyle, and gained greater appreciation for the connections that matter.
Studies show more seniors than ever have adopted smartphones — 42%, according to Pew — and 67% say they have internet access. At the same time, only a quarter of adults over 65 say they feel confident about using electronics to go online.
“There’s the people who could always do it; there are the people who could do some, but are getting better with all this practice; and there are people who had a device but weren’t really using it,” said Louise Aronson, a geriatrician and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “Maybe they got it and they thought it was too complicated, or their kids got it for them and they never used it. Those are the people who have big opportunities.”
Nearly 13.8 million Americans over the age of 65 — about 28% of that population — live by themselves, according to 2017 estimates from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Surveys from organizations like AARP and Kaiser Family Foundation suggest that anywhere between 33% and 43% of all older adults in the U.S. experience loneliness either sometimes or frequently. The lack of social connection and brain stimulation is associated with higher risks of physical health problems like heart disease, dementia and even premature death, according to a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences.
Shelter-in-place edicts have the potential to exacerbate the loneliness crisis among older adults, who are now unable to see families or attend social gatherings. For those in nursing homes, especially, the isolation is compounded by far higher risk of catching a deadly case of the virus — across the U.S., about one in 10 nursing homes has reported a case, and Kaiser Family Foundation data shows more than 10,000 people in long-term care facilities have died. Strict bans on visitors mean that millions of older people in nursing homes and other retirement communities have been unable to see their adult children or grandchildren in person.
“It’s a tremendous stress on the mental health of seniors,” said Edward Schneider, a professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California. But for him, the options feel tremendous, too. “My day starts at 5:30 in the morning and ends at 8:30 or 9 at night, and I’m busy the entire time,” he said. “I don’t feel terribly isolated — although I am isolated, because I’m 80 years old — but I’m interacting with people all the time.”
Turning to tech
When states began announcing their isolation orders, organizers behind the digital platform Senior Planet started making calls to more than 2,000 seniors in the six cities where they operate, asking them what they needed during the social isolation period. The responses ran the gamut: They wanted tutorials on Zoom, sure, but also on everything else from gaming programs to telemedicine to ride-sharing apps. They wanted to stay engaged with the outside world, too, through virtual social clubs and fitness classes, even online dating.
“Having something to learn about is a good way to meet new people that’s not based on the purpose of meeting new people but on having similar interest in topics,” says Melissa Sakow, the director of communications for Older Adults Technology Services, which runs Senior Planet.
It helps to have an already-established community, because it can act as social support as well as tech support. Weiss, for example, is part of the 375-member San Francisco Village, one of 300 local chapters in the national “village movement” of aging-in-place organizations. These villages offer a twist on retirement communities: Instead of living together, seniors remain in their homes ands neighborhoods, tapping local volunteers for errands and doctors’ trips, and convening socially for book clubs or memoir groups or film screenings. Before the pandemic, this built-in network helped Weiss and others connect in person. Now, they’re pushing each other to find social ties online.
In one of these villages in San Francisco, Kate Hoepke, 65, onboarded more than 120 new volunteers during the first month of shelter in place, most of them Millennials, who help with technology training. In another village in Pasadena, Belinda Vidaurri has been patiently walking people through how to use Zoom over the phone with the help of volunteer graduate students. A buddy system, which never really caught on pre-Covid, has organically emerged among the Villagers; members call their friends and share call-in numbers for online sessions they might like.
“These are communities of older adults who are taking charge of the impact of physical distancing — educating themselves and transforming and reinventing themselves to be able to meet the moment,” said Charlotte Dickson, the executive director of Village Movement California, an umbrella organization of villages in the state. “And that is such a different narrative than the narrative around ‘victims of Covid dying.’”
As a result of this online pivot, the villages have been able to reach more people who wouldn’t otherwise show up to physical meetings, even before the lockdowns started. San Francisco’s meditation group once had 12 to 15 in-person attendees each week; now that it’s moved online, 25 people sign on. Zoom Tai Chi is popular, as is improv class; the chapter’s LGBTQ circle has doubled in size.
The advantages extend beyond socializing. At Senior Planet, tech trainings have been among its most popular virtual offerings: everything from shopping on Amazon and making person-to-person mobile payments to accessing podcasts.
Since mastering Zoom, 68-year-old Pat Jasso in San Antonio, Texas, has diligently been learning how to apply for SNAP benefits online and use telemedicine portals — not for herself, but so that she can teach others. Jasso leads a few of the tech tutorials on Senior Planet, including one on Google Classrooms that she says is useful for adults who end up having to take care of grandchildren. “We call it ‘Grandparents, Grandkids to Google,’” she says. “I do a Zoom to help grandparents [monitor] how the kids are doing, or what they’re doing.”
Jasso has applied some of this new knowledge to her own life. She says she never would have tried telehealth if not for the pandemic. Now that she isn’t able to readily see her doctor, she finally made an account. It wasn’t as complicated as she thought, and she likes that she can see her lab results right on the portal — and she plans to keep using it.
The digital divide as social divide
One recipe for beating social isolation in old age is having an internet connection, a device, and a patient teacher. Pew surveys suggest, though, that while older Americans have become more digitally connected over the years — some through community access or on their phones — the digital revolution still leaves about half of seniors without broadband access at home. Adoption is especially limited among those who are older, and those who earn less income. That means for some, the larger challenge isn’t learning a new app; it’s having the tools to do it in the first place.
Some cities are trying to fill the gap. With a $5 million investment from T-Mobile, New York City has started handing out computer tablets, along with a year’s worth of free mobile internet service, to public housing residents age 62 and older — part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ongoing “Internet Master Plan” to close the city’s digital divide. “COVID-19 has made clear to all that broadband is a public health necessity too,” John Paul Farmer, chief technology officer of New York City, said in an email to CityLab. “For people to access essential services online, they first have to be online. It’s just that simple.” The city has also teamed up with the group Older Adults Technology Services to offer device set-up and tech assistance to recipients.
The initiative is a good start, says Allison Nickerson at the nonprofit LiveOn NY, which promotes better age-in-place policies in the city. But there are nearly 500,000 older residents without broadband access in New York City, according to official data, and those who don’t live in public housing may need assistance too. Nickerson adds that many live in poverty and face other issues that the lack of connection to services exacerbates, including food insecurity and barriers to health resources. Her organization’s own data suggests that some 320,000 seniors not living in nursing homes fall into that category.
California is partnering with Google to give out 10,000 hotspots to people in need — not just seniors but also families with kids. In other states, cities have set up Wi-Fi hotspots in the parking lots of schools and public libraries, where seniors have previously turned for tech assistance. In fact, as libraries closed their doors last month, the American Library Association recommended that they leave their Wi-Fi on for residents to access from outside the buildings. The private sector, too, has launched some new initiatives, like in Washington, where Comcast is opening up 65,000 public hotspots.
It’s not always resources that are the problem: It can be hard for seniors to adopt new technology that wasn’t designed for them. “We blame people for not knowing how to use technology, but we know that if somebody learns to drive when they’re not a teenager, they don’t have the same instincts,” said Aronson. Tech companies would do well to invent devices with bigger, clearer icons, colors, and shapes — built for those with arthritis or bad eyesight — “instead of saying there’s something wrong with you because you can’t use this technology,” she said.
Juniper Communities, which runs nursing homes in New Jersey, Colorado and Pennsylvania, launched a centralized website for seniors in any living situation to find digital resources curated from across the internet after group activities in their facilities were canceled. The interface itself is senior-friendly. “The font is pretty large — much larger than a traditional website,” said Sara Mitchell, the director of communications and client relations at Solinity, which helped build the Virtual Connections platform. “That’s on purpose.” In the first month it went live, 5,000 people had used the site.
Tech can’t replace touch
For many older people, some degree of isolation was already a part of life before coronavirus. But that doesn’t make their human desire for touch and in-person interaction any less acute.
Weiss is getting the hang of online teaching, and would be happy to continue with occasional Zoom lectures if it meant she could cut down on commuting days. But she doesn’t envision a new chapter of social life mediated by screens; even now, she prefers the phone to video calls with friends. “The experience of just being with a person in reality, it takes on a different dimension,” she said. “We’ll be much more aware of how different that is and how important it is.”
But aging experts fear that seniors will be the last to return to the semblance of “normal” life that includes frequent in-person contact. In Europe, some political leaders have suggested that the elderly should continue distancing for the rest of the year; California Governor Gavin Newsom has said as much, too. In nursing homes across the country, rules banning or limiting visitors may not loosen for some time, Mitchell says. And even people living alone may be reticent to return to groups they once enjoyed. That means short-term resilience measures may soon become the status quo, a realization that could be toughest for the country’s oldest.
“There are many ways for Covid to kill you,” says Aronson. “It can kill you directly, but if you spend the last year or last quarter or third of your life locked in a single room or home never seeing or touching … Already, here’s a group that doesn’t get enough of that.”
If seniors are being asked to continue physical distancing for the better part of the next year or two, divisions between generations may calcify. “You’re basically disappearing almost 30% of the state of California, and ageism is all about disappearing people … once you retire, you’re done,” said Dickson. “The whole field [of aging] is going to have to be really intentional and vigilant.”
Nickerson at the group LiveOn NY adds that it’s easy to forget that older adults are resilient, and can offer guidance to the younger members of their communities. “A lot of older people spend significant time giving back to community, and it’s very hard when you lose that role,” she said. “They want to get back and be part of the conversations with their community members, so providing and facilitating their ability to do that is critical.” Some of the social infrastructure that’s emerging during the pandemic — like memoir-writing clubs that connect senior storytellers with Millennials willing to record them, and groups that specifically link the young and old for digital check-ins — could create lasting ties.
Local legislators must also balance the need to protect vulnerable communities’ health with treating them with the same respect they do other groups, says Aronson. That means policies that aren’t based on assumptions that “young people are able to make decisions and go out with protection, and older people aren’t” — ones that respect both their very real risks, and their capabilities.
At 100 years old, Angela Little is a self-proclaimed “social creature.” She’s more tech-savvy than most people her age: A former U.C. Berkeley professor in the department of nutritional science, she remembers using some of the first big IBM computers. But she’s not as interested in learning how to use more modern video-conferencing platforms like Zoom.
“I am at the end of my life,” she said. “I am not looking forward to developing into something else.” She does like FaceTiming, texts her daughter and grandchildren constantly throughout the day and streams contemporary dramas on Netflix. What she wants more than anything, though, is a visit from her family. “If they could come by, that would make me feel a lot better,” she said. “But they’re sequestered, too.”
If the lockdown wasn’t in place, Little knows exactly how she’d want to spend her days. “I would tell my friend in Berkeley to get on BART, and say, ‘Let’s go and have sushi and have our long conversations.’ I would go and take a walk with somebody, I would go to the park, I would go look at my ocean — all these things that I cannot do now,” she said. “I’m not complex at this moment. I don’t live a complicated life. But I want to hug my friends, and my granddaughters — I want that intimacy.”
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The United States grapples with a deep digital divide in which those who need broadband access the most—the poor in rural areas—are the least likely to be connected. But it’s been a challenge for advocates to understand the full scope of the problem nationally, and for local and regional governments to suss out where their most underserved constituents live. Part of the problem is what advocates have long argued is an undercount of the unconnected population by the U.S. agency charged with overseeing internet access.
According to a new report by the company Broadband Now, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission may have underestimated the number of Americans without access to high-speed internet by 20 million people. The researchers also found that those undercounts tended to be greater in states with a higher rural population, meaning the rural poor aren’t getting the funding they need to get connected.
While there are local funding initiatives, states depend significantly on federal dollars, the distribution of which is determined by the FCC’s measurement of who does and doesn’t have have access to broadband. Most recently, the FCC approved a $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity fund to narrow America’s digital gap, starting with the census blocks that the agency’s data show are least connected. But if the FCC’s count is off, funding will be, too.
And that has consequences. More reliable connection can translate to better job opportunities for working rural poor, more competition among farmers, and better education for kids. “For rural areas to be vibrant, with good remote working jobs and competitive economies, everybody needs access to broadband internet,” says John Busby, the managing director of Broadband Now, which pushes for better transparency between internet service providers and their consumers.
The FCC’s latest deployment report, released in May, calculates that 93.7 percent of the American population have broadband access in their area, leaving only 21.3 million Americans without high-speed internet. But when researchers at Broadband Now crunched their own numbers, their analysis suggest the actual number of Americans without broadband access is 42 million—double FCC’s figure. (And that doesn’t account for people who can’t live in areas with broadband infrastructure, but can’t afford it.)
“Frankly, I was surprised about how big the gap was when I got the data back. I’d assumed it was smaller,” says Busby. “It really sheds the light on the need to have better reporting.”
To get its estimate, the Broadband Now team manually ran 11,663 randomly selected addresses through the “check availability” tool of nine large internet service providers that claim to serve those areas. All in all, the team analyzed 20,000 provider-address combinations. A fifth of them indicated that no service was available, suggesting to the researchers that companies may be overstating their availability by 20%, Busby says. The results also show that 13% of the addresses served by multiple providers didn’t actually have available service through any of them. They then applied these rates across the country to get their final estimate of 42 million people without broadband.
The disparity between their estimate and the FCC’s largely comes from the agency’s reliance on Form 477 reports, in which internet providers self-report the locations they serve. Providers can claim to serve the population of an entire census block if service is provided to just one household in that block. After the release of FCC’s May report, the agency’s Democratic commissioners dismissed the report, berating their colleagues for “blindly accepting incorrect data” and using the numbers to “clap its hands and pronounce our broadband job done.”
A state-by-state breakdown of the data further uncovers a wide range of gaps between Broadband Now’s estimates and FCC’s, depending how rural or urban each state is. “We found that in states that are inherently more rural, there’s a much bigger gap between FCC estimates and ours than in a densely populated city or in states that are primarily urban,” says Busby, whose team compared the data to the “urban percentage” of each state’s population.
In Mississippi, where less than half of the population live in urban areas, the FCC’s coverage is over-reported by 20%. Similarly, in Arkansas where 56% of the population are urban, the coverage rate is overstated by 23%. Meanwhile, in states like California and Massachusetts, where the urban percentage is above 90%, the gap between FCC and Broadband Now’s coverage estimates hovers under 5 points.
The results point to why Form 477 data is especially detrimental to rural areas, where census blocks are bigger and more sparsely populated. That means houses are spread further apart, so while one house may be able to reach a wired line, the family next door—a few miles over—cannot.
The FCC did not respond to a request for comment, but in August, it announced that it would improve the accuracy of its count by requiring providers to submit geospatial maps of exactly where they provide service. Those maps, according to the new FCC order, would also be checked against crowdsourced information from the public. But the FCC doesn’t plan on implementing that upgrade until after the first distribution phase of the Rural Digital Opportunity fund, which will allocate $16 billion to census blocks that the agency’s data show is “wholly unserved” by internet providers.
That has states concerned over whether they will get their “fair share” of the fund, as Jeff Sural, who heads North Carolina Department of Technology’s broadband infrastructure office, put it to State Scoop. In North Carolina, for example, where the FCC overestimates broadband coverage by more than half a million people according to Broadband Now, state officials have had to turn to other data sources such as resident surveys to figure out who needs broadband funding the most.
In 2018, Georgia’s community affairs department began making its own county-level broadband coverage map as well. The first phase of the project, in which it mapped three counties, has already proved to be a labor- and time-intensive undertaking that involved working with municipal government to build an extensive database of all residential and business locations, and negotiating with broadband providers to get location data. But it also showed that in those three counties alone, the FCC data vastly overstated coverage.
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When Juliet Eldred launched a Facebook group called New Urbanist Memes For Transit-Oriented Teens in 2017, she figured it might last a few months. Sharing irreverent memes about public transit, mixed-use housing, and other city planning fodder was just a way to blow off steam with friends as a geography major at the University of Chicago.
But NUMTOT lasted well past her graduation. Fueled by attention from increasingly influential media organizations, the group now counts more than 180,000 members worldwide. And they’re making their presence known in the offline arena of national politics. On Wednesday, Eldred and the group’s other top administrators, Jonathan Marty and Emily Orenstein, posted an official endorsement for Bernie Sanders in his run for president: “As transportation and housing professionals, as well as urbanists who are deeply invested in the social and economic welfare of our communities, we are committed to Senator Sanders’ vision of peace, equity, and justice,” they wrote.
Today, Bernie sent some love right back, in a statement posted to his campaign Facebook page: “Thank you NUMTOT for your support of our campaign, and for all you are doing to create the lasting and fundamental change our country needs.” Alongside the message of appreciation was a photo of Sanders boarding a bus—pure NUMTOT catnip. The comment section went wild, in its web-parlance way: “I’m s h o o k e t h,” wrote one member.
Although NUMTOT’s administrators state in their endorsement that they do not “purport to speak for the group as a whole,” Eldred sees many of Sanders’ specific policy ideas as aligned with the group’s founding ideals. “Proposing to build 10 million units of affordable housing, national rent control, working on dismantling the legacies of redlining, $300 billion for public transit—that’s all attractive to us from our particular point of view,” she told CityLab.
Still, some readers may be wondering why a hyper-niche Spongebob-meme-swapping forum would be endorsing anything, or why this is news at all. For Eldred, the answer lies in the increasingly powerful platform that the NUMTOTs command. Over the years, the group has gradually shifted away from urban-y riffs on Galaxy Brain and Distracted Boyfriend and more towards vigorous policy debate. (Recent topics: Should cities ban cars? YIMBYs—foes or friends to affordable housing? Henry George—genius or super-genius?) All kidding aside, the group’s composition alone indicates its get-out-the-youth-vote potential.
“We have 115,000 members in the U.S. and 90 percent of them are under the age of 34,” Eldred said. “That’s a big demographic of people who are not known for voting in high numbers, and in terms of numbers, it’s comparable to other progressive organizations that have put out endorsements.” In the run-up to November, she hopes to use her administrative powers to distribute voting guide information and remind people to stay engaged, regardless of their political preferences.
The lovefest with the Sanders campaign isn’t the first time NUMTOT discourse has turned into real-world action. The group’s members have attended public meetings, run for public office, changed college majors, and even tied the knot.
Eldred hopes their combined powers will help push urban issues further into the national spotlight, and she sees signs that they’re moving in that direction, from the past year’s focus on affordable housing among Democratic candidates to the New York Times’ recent story about experiments in free public transit. “These topics aren’t at the forefronts of everyone’s minds, besides occasional references to crumbling infrastructure,” she said, in reference to the Democratic candidate debates of the past six months. “But it seems like there is starting to be more momentum on that front. They’re not hot-button issues like healthcare, but they’re getting closer.”
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