COVID-19 exposes the scope of the technological divide for seniors
I have spent half of my life with my fingertips glued to a computer, phone, or tablet. I’m fortunate to use technology to learn, connect with friends, and, of course, watch Netflix. Although I appreciate weekly Zoom calls and online class, I am fortunate enough to not need my devices to video-chat with my doctor about any health-related issues.
Unfortunately, nearly half of Americans cannot say the same. Research from Johns Hopkins University demonstrates over half of older Americans have three or more chronic conditions, which is also associated with a higher risk of death and disability. Meaning, older Americans who are most vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic are also the Americans who most need continuous care.
These older Americans, however, do not have a simple fix like me. Over 25 million Americans older than 60 live in poverty and many rely entirely on their Social Security checks for monthly expenses. For these 25 million Americans, unlocking a rose-gold iPhone and Googling their doctor to schedule a virtual appointment is not possible without having the technology to do so.
This technological divide has created a situation where elderly people are asked to choose between getting healthcare and staying home to avoid the high risk of COVID-19 infection. Some patients are not able to make this decision at all as their physicians’ offices are entirely closed to in-person visits. This leaves millions of Americans, right near you and me, desperately riding out the pandemic and waiting for care for chronic conditions like diabetes. In the meantime, their conditions could be worsening to the point that they end up contracting infection in the emergency room for something that could have been easily treated at their regular physician’s office.
When I realized this was a problem, friends and I knew we had to do something to help and quickly launched TeleHealth Access for Seniors (telehealthforseniors.org), a non-profit dedicated to collecting devices donated to us by our communities and providing them to seniors in need. Within our first day, I contacted numerous practices and found out veterans were especially in need. In 2012, 6.9% of veterans were impoverished. After reaching out to the VAs across the country, we have been asked to help provide over 500 devices to veterans who have no other technology to use.
As aspirational as my team is, we recognize at least some of this demand will go unmet. In speaking with numerous physicians advising us on this non-profit, we have learned TeleHealth has always been a possibility but institutional barriers have slowed its implementation. These same obstacles are part of the reason why so many older Americans do not have the devices they need right now. Working on this non-profit, I have realized we not only need to prioritize TeleHealth during the pandemic, but we need to recognize its utility in the long run. TeleHealth can reduce healthcare inequity by enabling disabled people, seniors, and those in rural areas to get care more easily.
The pandemic has the opportunity to be a reorienting of our society. In the days after COVID-19, I hope we shift away from Band-Aid solutions and towards long-term innovations like providing TeleHealth access to as many Americans as possible.
Aakshi Agarwal lives in Hamden.
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