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Online expectations of seniors unkind

| February 25, 2021 1:00 AM

The difficulty many seniors face trying to register online for a COVID vaccine is only the latest emanation of a neglected problem: Older Americans struggle to meet needs online.

Increasingly and especially since the pandemic, medical communications and telehealth, bills and financial services, food and pharmacy orders involve smart phone and computer use. Even government services require digital skills seniors lack (and devices some can’t afford).

It’s not simply a matter of tech unfamiliarity. Screen glare, small phone displays, and little icons or small-font captions present visual problems for folks with failing eyesight. Keyboards both full-size and phone-size can be a challenge for arthritic fingers. Flashing and moving content is stressful even for younger adults, but as we age they become more vexing.

That’s just relatively healthy seniors; those with conditions such as dementia or effects of Parkinson’s and other illnesses simply can’t do it. They need to pick up the phone and talk to a helpful human, but that’s not always an option anymore.

According to Kaiser Family Foundation research, nearly two-thirds of those 70 and older have hearing loss. Among those 65 and older, 13.5 percent have significantly impaired vision and 14 percent have dementia.

KFF research also found half of seniors living alone and 23 percent in two-person households are unable to afford basic necessities, let alone smart phones and computers. When Medicare Advantage Plan SCAN Health surveyed its members after the pandemic hit, it found one-third didn’t have the technology access needed for a telehealth appointment.

Even if those who have it tend to struggle using it. A study released this month by password security firm Nordpass found only 34 percent of seniors say they regularly change and secure their passwords, more than half keep them on a piece of paper and don’t change them (recommended every 90 days). Only 22 percent store them in a secure password manager.

Yet most seniors believe they’re secure online, and about 40 percent think their chances of being hacked are “slim,” Nordpass found.

To expect today’s seniors (who didn’t encounter internet technology until late in adulthood) to navigate all this is unrealistic and unkind. The rest of us tend to assume “someone” is helping them. Yet not all have responsible, willing relatives to help nearby. Many hesitate to ask, embarrassed or simply not wishing to burden anyone.

Beyond reaching out more to ask if help is needed, more businesses and services need the option of phone lines with real humans at the other end to serve this population – which is projected to grow as more Boomers retire and medicine continues to advance.

Their generation helped the rest of us navigate early life. Now it’s our turn to give up some of that online “convenience” to return the favor.

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email Sholeh@cdapress.com.