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Bridging the digital divide: Connect seniors to technology

By Tricia Brown

Many older adults are still skeptical about the practical applications or benefits of technology. Some may need assistance to learn how to use digital devices and access Internet resources. According to data by the Pew Research Center, approximately 40 percent of all adults age 65 and older do not access the Internet at all. More than half do not have broadband access at home.

How can churches help older adults take advantage of the wonderful world of cyberspace?

1. Make it personal.

Engage older adults with specific applications that can make their lives easier or provide entertainment. Consider the following ideas:

  • Leaders might use sites such as Quizworks to ask questions relating to Sunday school lessons or sermons.
  • Show homebound church members how they can view and interact with live broadcasts of your worship service or classes.
  • Invite older adults to share their stories on your church's social media sites. Have another volunteer type and post for them, if needed.
  • Be creative. Collaborate with family or close friends to plan a surprise Skype visit or Facetime call. Imagine having the grandkids pop into a Sunday school class to say "hello." Demonstrate the process and walk them through it a few times.
  • Teach older adults to use online Bible apps like YouVersion or Internet study resources such as BibleVerses.
  • Words with Friends is a fun Scrabble-ike game and chat app that older adults can play with friends from all over the world. They also might enjoy playing games they can play alone, like Solitaire. They can take these games wherever they go if they download them on iOS or Android smartphones. But what if they don't have smartphones?  
  • Convince more older adults to try smartphones! Research smartphones made for seniors. Highlight the fun features on your smartphone. Show them how to download popular free music apps. These apps contain powerful technology, yet they're extremely easy to use.  Seniors might change their minds about smartphones if they knew they could:
  • Start a radio station based around their favorite song, artist or music genre.
  • Easily identify songs playing in their environment with the tap of a button.
  • Listen to unlimited amounts of almost every artist, orchestra, comedian, etc.
  • Create custom playlists for dinner parties and other special events.
  • Share all these activities on Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Bridging the digital divide:  Ministries, games, music apps & smartphones designed for older adults TWEET THIS TWEET THIS

2. Encourage volunteer support.

Everything is more fun when you do it with a friend. Recruit volunteers who are willing to take a hands-on approach to introducing technology-based ministries to older adults. Remember, when teaching newbies of any age how to access Internet ministries, use non-techie language and provide easy-to-follow step by step printed instructions. Also encourage volunteers to be very patient and to gently troubleshoot problems that may arise.

  • Have a volunteer visit older adult Sunday school classes to demonstrate specific uses and answer questions. Include the same information in Sunday morning worship pamphlets or bulletins and monthly newsletters and during slideshows before worship.
  • Have an IT expert teach an introductory computer class. A class that is offered directly before or after a regularly-scheduled meeting or activity may draw a greater audience.
  • Create a buddy system where knowledgeable teen or adult volunteers pair up with older church members who want to learn how to use computers, cellphones, tablets and other devices.
  • Recruit volunteers to demonstrate how to use basic cell phone features such as texting or taking and sending photos. If older adults have smartphones, look for "Accessibility" settings. You may be able to:
    • Increase text size.
    • Turn on "Talkback" or a similar setting that provides spoken feedback and describes what you touch, select and activate.  
    • Turn on voice confirmation of characters when inputting passwords. Be sure to explain not to insert passwords in public places.
    • Adjust colors or increase screen color contrast for people who have a hard time differentiating colors.
    • Turn on captions for people with hearing impairments.
    • Create an accessibilities settings shortcut on home screens to make adjustments easily.
    • Download a senior-friendly launch app.
Smartphones are TOO smart! Accessibility settings, accessibility apps and senior-friendly phones make it easier. TWEET THIS TWEET THIS

3. Provide the equipment.

Many older adults live on fixed incomes. Those who are not already connected to the Internet may not have the equipment or funds to do so. If you want older adults to use online resources, you may need to provide the equipment.  

Sponsor a computer drive to collect used equipment. Provide at least one computer, with Internet access, in the older adult Sunday school room. Simply offering a computer to use before or after regular class times (or whenever the church is open) may give people a place to develop computer skills or sign up for an email account. Provide a list of other places such as libraries and community centers that offer free computer and Internet services.  

Once older adults enjoy the benefits of the Internet, you can find more ways to connect with the "plugged-in" at your church. Of course, despite your best efforts, some will hesitate. Use more traditional methods to stay connected with the "unplugged" as well.  And remember that even those who are "plugged-in" will welcome in-person visits and telephone calls, especially if they are homebound.