Lighthouse for Older Adults
Engage Magazine Fall 2020 Technology

Lighting Pathways to Digital Literacy in Senior Housing

by Robin Douglas, Robin Douglas Creative Services, LLC

From ordering medication online to buying groceries or connecting with friends and family, the internet has become a critical survival tool today. Yet millions of low-income older adults in the U.S. lack the basic digital literacy skills they need due to barriers to access, affordability and training. In answer to this, a new pilot program called Lighthouse for Older Adults was created by UC Berkeley’s Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) to bring connectivity to senior housing communities and teach residents the skills they need to thrive in an increasingly digital world.

“The internet is a vital tool for older adult residents,” said Sheri Peifer, Chief Strategy Officer at Eskaton in Sacramento, Calif. Eskaton, along with Front Porch in Southern California, will launch the pilot at one community site each – with the plan to expand to a total of six – that will serve as a model and roadmap for replication for other communities. Peifer explained that many senior housing buildings have hot spots or community spaces but don’t necessarily have the infrastructure for residents to access the internet in their apartments. “For Eskaton, it was a good opportunity to look at scaling broadband access to all affordable housing residents,” she said. 

Residents at both communities turned out en masse to fill out the initial participation surveys. “It was amazing,” said Kari Olson, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer at Front Porch. “The residents are really ready to engage. It speaks to the importance of figuring out how to bridge the digital divide in affordable housing.” 

The pilot was born out of a flurry of projects that came in the wake of COVID-19 as researchers at CITRIS Health looked at some of the biggest issues and pain points impacting vulnerable older adult populations. Lack of broadband access is associated with fewer telehealth visits, increased social isolation and increased negative health outcomes for low-income older adults. Lighthouse isn’t just about introducing the internet, said CITRIS Health Program Director David Lindeman. “It’s also about health literacy and trying to make telehealth services accessible to individuals in this area that would go well past COVID-19.” 

There is a wide variance when it comes to older adults’ digital readiness – more seniors than ever have adopted smartphones, for example, (42 percent according to Pew Research Center) yet only a quarter of adults over 65 say they feel confident about using those devices to go online. On the flipside, only 27 percent of older adults with a household income of less than $30K own a smartphone. There are many Boomers who live and breathe tech, but for others it hasn’t been as readily accessible,” said Lindeman. The program will look at the unique needs of residents through the lens of the range of cultures, backgrounds and languages represented across communities (Peifer noted that first survey was translated into nine languages), as well as different levels of comfort and familiarity with technology.

While the benefits of tech for older adults are well-known, it’s more involved than just handing out devices. “We have all the data that tells us it improves health outcomes, wellbeing, longevity, and wellness. But it’s not an easy thing to do,” said Olson. Determining the best approach to installing WiFi is a major consideration, for example, when buildings are made with cinder block in places where WiFi signals don’t go through well. That’s why Olson thinks this program is so important. “We’re looking to deliver a model that answers the questions about how to do this affordably, and in a way that truly works for older adults and their needs.”

Internet access in the 21st century is as critical as a telephone line was in the 20th century. In August the California State Assembly pulled SB 1130, the “Broadband for All” bill, which would have helped provide high speed internet to rural and low income regions across the state.  However, this basic principal of expanding Broadband access to all older adults as a basic necessity was a key recommendation by the Stakeholder Advisory Committee for inclusion in the Governor’s Master Plan on Aging.

The Lighthouse program aims to fill the gap by empowering older adults with the digital literacy skills they will need to survive and thrive in today’s world as well as offer providers new options in funding the installation of sustainable internet solutions for residents.  

For communities interested in learning more about replicating the program, Lindeman recommends contacting CITRIS at: