Photo: Aging Rebels

Sarasota-Manatee Residents Adjust to Digital Tools to Overcome Isolation During COVID-19

Posted on December 17, 2020 by Justin Garcia, Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Nancy Schlossberg logs into her Zoom chat and greets ten of her peers from the Aging Rebels discussion group. She loves being able to look into the eyes of her friends, even though they aren’t meeting in person because of COVID-19.

The group, ranging from 60-91 years of age, addresses an array of topics related to growing older, such as loneliness, loss of a spouse, relationships, anxiety, and physical limitations. Today, they’re discussing the effects of their environment on aging.

They talk about how their moods are affected by the outside world and how people perceive their bodies. They’re sometimes written off or dismissed by younger people, health care providers, and physicians in their daily lives.

Laughter, smiles, and jokes intersect the serious subjects, and there’s a joyful camaraderie between them.

Schlossberg, 91, is co-leader of the Aging Rebels, along with her friend Michael Karp. She’s a professor emerita at The University of Maryland, a professional counselor, and an author. Helping lead the group for the past two years is deeply meaningful for her.

When COVID-19 arrived in Florida in March, the Rebels had to move their meetings online, like millions of people worldwide. But a gap in digital skills presented obstacles.

“Myself and others in the group were running into problems with how to use Zoom and other programs,” Schlossberg says. “We realized we needed help adjusting to this new world.”

A Pew Research study from 2017 revealed that 73% of Americans who are 65 and older said they need help setting up electronic devices such as computers and tablets. 23% said they were only a little confident when using electronic devices, while 11% said they were not comfortable.

Senior Friendship Centers, where the Aging Rebels formerly met in person, stepped in to help the group set up Zoom meetings and invite members to a program that teaches older people how to use new technology. Crystal Rothhaar, communications director for the Friendship Centers, believes it is crucial for people’s health to have access to digital communication.

“When our centers were closed from March through May, we had so many people suffering because they were isolated,” Rothhaar says. “We wanted to have a digital option for people because mental health is so important in a time like this.”

Rothhaar points out that the effects of isolation can be severe, especially on older people. A report out of Brigham Young University shows that “lack of social connection heightens health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder.”

Senior Friendship Centers Manager April Moschini says the organization had around 700 in-person visitors per week before COVID-19. Now, an estimated 100 visitors come to SFC a week, and strict precautions are in place.

Moschini says that many of the older people who arrive in person don’t have access to devices, and they show up to have communication and break isolation. But by venturing into public places for these needs, older people are taking a risk.

That’s where organizations like the Sarasota Technology Users Group come in, providing access to technology for those in need.

STUG’s volunteers rely on donations to refurbish computers, webcams, and other types of equipment. Those donations have been down this year due to COVID-19, and they’re asking people with extra technology to visit the organization’s donation page and contribute.

Beyond working to provide access to technology, STUG also hosts web trainings, where session leaders discuss new internet tools and apps available, along with providing tutorials on YouTube, converting files, and more. In late November, 88 participants logged in to a STUG Zoom meeting to sharpen their digital literacy.

Suncoast Technical College offers technology classes as part of its Adult & Community Enrichment Center; State College of Florida has an “absolute beginners” introduction to using a computer; and the Osher Lifelong Learning Center at Ringling College has a variety of courses to help people adapt to new technology.

Public libraries have been priceless public assets during the pandemic for those in need, providing mobile hotspots, digital training and resources for residents. Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte, and DeSoto county libraries offer various services, including training and links to resources that can help increase digital competency.

While Schlossberg talks about the bonding and fun that Aging Rebels brings to her life, she also stops to recognize that there’s a certain privilege in being able to connect, have discussions, and avoid isolation during the pandemic. A woman who came to their in-person meetings has been absent at their Zoom meetings because she lacks the necessary technology and training.

“People who are on the other end of the divide, it’s a different story,” Schlossberg says. “The challenges are enormous, but it’s great that people are working to address them.”

This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community to take action on issues related to digital access.

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