The Great Digital Divide- Supporting our Aging Housing Clients

“Technology is a useful servant, but a dangerous master.” – Christian Lous Lange 

Our lives have become dependent on technology.  

While we appreciate all that advanced technology has done for us as a society, no one can deny some of the problematic aspects that have surfaced along with it.  

One of these is the great digital divide between the rapid advances we’re making with technology and our elderly population. This divide gets especially wide when we start looking at housing programs and their use of technology to streamline processes. While this rapid access is great for staff and participants alike, it has created a scenario where it is more difficult to target seniors who require housing assistance. 

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in 2019, nearly 2.9 million senior citizens lived in some sort of federally subsidized housing. In fact, the Coalition estimates that an additional 3.6 million qualify but don’t participate. 

When I think back to my childhood, it is strange to realize the world I grew up in no longer exists.  

I remember going on long road trips as a child and dreaming of a world where I could watch movies and tv from the comfort of the backseat of the car. In high school, I sported a hot pink pager clipped to the waist of my grey, pleated, uniform skirt. I purchased my very first cell phone from a Radio Shack electronics store. It was a clumsy and cumbersome item, and I paid an exorbitant amount of money for 30 minutes of talking time each month. Fast forward to today, and I, like most everyone else, have a smartphone. I can literally do anything and everything from my phone, and like most everyone else, I do.  

While this is commonplace nowadays, there are still many people, especially over the age of 65, who haven’t integrated technology into their everyday lives like the rest of us.  

The statistics surrounding seniors and technology show a significant need for tech alternatives. 

Housing authorities can contribute to their lease up numbers by simply integrating a few measures to help seniors access affordable housing.  We don’t want to be those who sit back and allow others to risk losing their housing simply because of tech and computer illiteracy.  A look at the numbers tells us even more about this great digital divide.  

 

Just the Facts Please…  

  • One-third of adults over the age of 65 have never used the internet. When you pair age along with minority status, that number rises significantly.  
  • According to Pew Research Center, 73% of seniors have admitted to needing help when learning how to set up and use a new device.  
  • AARP states that 38% of seniors over the age of 70 don’t use a smartphone at all.   

Remember those road trips I mentioned above? I have a scenario forever in my mind of our car pulled over to the side of the road, my dad pouring over road maps trying to figure out where we needed to go. When GPS first came out, it was like a technological miracle that you had to attach to your dashboard or windshield. Now, we have our pick of free apps on our phones that not only tell us where to go and when, but tell us the current speed limit, and if there is an accident up ahead we need to be aware of.  

Technology is constantly evolving. The systems we used to depend on have become obsolete and new ideas have become mainstream. 

 

So… What Do We Do About It? 

Let’s put some serious thought into how we, as a society, can continue to reach and care for senior citizens in ways that are accessible to them and their lifestyles.  

This could mean a variety of things, including:   

  • Allowing them to opt for correspondence and confirmations by phone or traditional mail. 

While email makes record keeping nearly effortless, we should still have an alternative option available such as offering printed materials and correspondence.  

Allowing these options could cut back on the number of notices required to go out and the amount of confusion that sometimes comes with it.  

  • Partnering with community centers to offer application assistance workshops.  

Community partnerships are invaluable. Most community, adult education, or senior centers already offer some type of computer literacy training. Teaming up to have some of those courses taught at your facility will increase the connection with seniors in your area. You can also have these community centers host workshops that help seniors apply for housing assistance on-site. Building these outreach opportunities and resources can have a significant impact and offer the participants a sense of community and caring they might not currently have.  

  • Having someone available to assist with filling out online forms. 

The number of seniors who struggle with utilizing online systems is astounding. Many are willing to learn, just need a little help. A housing authority offering help could include:  

  • Having someone available who can answer questions and walk participants through using any online portals or forms.  It would be best to designate certain “office hours” for this type of assistance.  
  • Offering easy to follow, step-by-step written instructions, with images, to utilize as a guide on some of the more important and complex tasks that participants need to use. 
  • Having an on-site business center available for use where participants have access to a computer to conduct any program related business.   
  • If an elderly participant has a social worker, caretaker, or other similar service provider, make note of that in their file so you can recommend that they request assistance.  

While there is no legal requirement to provide these types of accommodations for our aging generation, it benefits the housing authority just as much as the senior. Remember millions of seniors could be in HCV programs but are not. This could simply be because they don’t have the support they need for their challenges with technology.  

 

“We demand too much from our technology and not enough from ourselves.” -Author Unknown 

As a whole, our society has begun to see the world through technology tunnel vision. When we find someone who doesn’t do social media, text, or have an iPhone, we are shocked and almost don’t know what to do. It sounds humorous, but the reality is sobering…Let’s not make our seniors invisible, because they have not adapted to tech advances as quickly as others.  

We should continue to find a middle ground to ensure we are best serving everyone in our communities. 

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