OHA, URI, BCBSRI partner to help bridge
digital divide for older Rhode Islanders
New program will equip older adults in communities hard hit by
COVID with smart devices, internet services, and digital training
PROVIDENCE, RI – As part of its digiAGE initiative, the Rhode Island Office of Healthy Aging (OHA) today announced a partnership with the University of Rhode Island (URI) and Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island (BCBSRI) to connect more older adults to digital tools and help further fight the spread of COVID-19. The pilot program will equip residents living in areas hard hit by the crisis with smart devices, internet services, and related training to help them access online resources, work remotely, and virtually connect with family and friends.
“This pandemic has magnified the importance of technology to bridging physical distance and fostering social connection, but has also laid bare the digital inequities that persist across our state,” said Governor Gina M. Raimondo. “This partnership will allow us to expand access to digital tools while also helping us slow the spread of this virus.”
Today, technology is a fundamental aspect of life, underpinning how we work, learn, shop, socialize, and share information. The internet has emerged as the basic, connective thread that ties our world together, and yet over a quarter of older Rhode Islanders lack internet access. Through this pilot, URI’s Engaging Generations Cyber Seniors program faculty will work with community and senior centers in neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 to increase digital literacy and use for over 200 older Rhode Islanders. Smart devices and internet services will be provided to all participants, and URI students will provide tech support and training. As part of the program, a multilingual toolkit and train-the-trainer curriculum will be developed to promote peer-to-peer learning.
"Digital literacy and access are critical today,” said OHA Director Rosamaria Amoros Jones. "Too many older adults aren’t online, locking them out of the opportunities and support made possible by technology. For those helping to raise young children, limited digital fluency also affects their ability to support students who may be distance-learning in the home right now. We started the digiAGE Collaborative to bridge this digital divide while helping to combat COVID-19 and the social isolation and disruption to healthcare access many Rhode Islanders are experiencing. I am grateful to partners like URI and BCBSRI who join us in this mission. And I am especially proud of this program, which will bring younger and older generations together to learn and grow and support our multilingual learners across the state.”
Rhode Island’s digiAGE Collaborative is comprised of a growing list of industry, government, academic, and community partners working together to bridge the digital divide for older adults through coordinated investments in smart devices, internet services, digital literacy training, and online content creation. According to the Pew Research Center, an estimated 41 percent of Rhode Island adults age 65+ are not broadband users, with the least usage among older Rhode Islanders living in lower-income communities. Over 25 percent of older adults in the state aren’t online. A survey of state senior centers conducted by OHA showed an estimated 30,000 older adults living in the community do not have access to technology.
“Our team at URI is excited to expand the reach of this intergenerational program to include those hardest hit by the pandemic so that we can further enhance communication and problem-solving skills among our university students, many of whom will go on to work with older adults in their careers,” said Dr. Skye Leedahl, URI Associate Professor of Human Development & Family Science and Engaging Generations program lead. “For students, this service-learning opportunity promotes leadership skills, builds confidence, and empowers them to work with the diverse older population.”
"At Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island, we are committed to ensuring the health and well-being of Rhode Islanders and we recognize the significant need for technology as a tool to accomplish that,” said Carolyn Belisle, managing director of corporate social responsibility at BCBSRI. “The public health crisis we’re experiencing only exacerbates the urgency required to close the digital divide as a means to enhance access to healthcare services and mitigate social isolation. We are thrilled to be part of a collaboration with a shared vision for making life better for older adults in our state.”
“Senior centers are an important neighborhood hub and connector for health, wellness and meeting the basic human needs of our senior population”, said Bob Robillard, the President of the Rhode Island Senior Center Directors Association. “Our centers are a place people count on for assistance with everything from healthcare, community access to shopping, connection, conversation and shared meals. When these opportunities are interrupted or altered as they have been during the recent pandemic, it takes a toll -especially on those that are disconnected and highest risk and those who are not tech savvy and lack other basic social supports. Connecting people is what senior centers do best. Increasing connection to virtual services whenever possible, such as telehealth or online grocery or pharmacy delivery, helps ease the burden our members are facing right now. With a goal of promoting positive aging and long term health, these connections are more important now than ever before.We are proud to be a partner in this effort and look forward to the opportunities it will make possible for seniors throughout our state.”
Funding for this program is made possible by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island Community Health Fund. For more information about the digiAGE Collaborative and Rhode Island’s efforts to promote digital equity, visit www.oha.ri.gov/digiAGE.