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Computer literacy lags for rural seniors in a digital world

It's getting harder and harder to live in the world without online savvy. Yet there are still people who are not computer literate and some who barely get by because they did not grow up as digital natives.

Illinois State University researcher Elizabeth Kosuth said a survey of 800 McLean County seniors showed older people have a wide range of expertise and comfort with computers.

“From some people wanting to know information on how to use a VPN to others that were, ‘I have no use for technology, and I don't see how it can help me,'" said Kosuth of the Mennonite College of Nursing at ISU.

Seniors learn about computer technology at Living Well United in Leroy.
Living Well United
Seniors learn about computer technology at Living Well United in LeRoy.

Kosuth said a lot of seniors have devices they don't use.

“A nephew decides that an iPad would be great for their aunt. And it turns out that they don't have any idea how to use it. And so that can be a problem as well,” said Kosuth.

Kosuth said that limits seniors' ability to do things like stay in touch with family and friends, pay bills, and get medical care. The more services older people can find via computer and the more social outlets they have online, the longer they can stay in their homes as they age, she said. Even those over 65 who know something about computers often have knowledge gaps. Most people either learn from family and friends or teach themselves, said Kosuth.

A grant-funded program that Kosuth coordinates helps to reduce social isolation among seniors in rural McLean County by improving computer literacy. It offers a variety of classes including: explore the internet, Excel, Word, a short three-session course called "meet the computer," a longer six session "intro to computer" to prepare people to use a desktop, Intro to Windows, wellness, Facebook, iPad, iPhone basics, Android basics, PowerPoint, performance and maintenance, how to use the cloud, intro to email, and even Windows 10, and basic cybersecurity.

“Social isolation is a huge issue. It is a social determinant of health … It can lead to physical decline in terms of not getting out. To be at home all the time is not good for the heart, cognitively, physically, all together,” said Kosuth. “That is one reason why we decided with the grant to make part of our project technology training for older adults to reduce social isolation.”

The initiative is part of a larger four-year Advanced Nursing Education Workforce grant to ISU. $2.8 million comes through the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, or HRSA. The bulk of the money supports family nurse practitioner students and encourages them to serve underserved and rural areas. Kosuth said part of the project supports older adults and improves coordination of resources and services in rural and underserved areas. She said it’s supposed to improve physical and mental health outcomes of seniors, allowing them to safely age at home for as long as possible.

Seniors learn about technology through the Connections program held at Living Well United in Leroy.
Living Well United
Seniors learn about technology through the Connections program held at Living Well United in Leroy.

The computer literacy program Connections originated by the St. Louis-based not-for-profit OASIS group works a lot through libraries. Partners in the Connections program include the ARC (Activity and Recreation Center) in Normal, Bloomington Housing Authority, Lexington Public Library, Chenoa Library, Living Well United in LeRoy, and Cheney’s Grove Library. Kosuth said they can always use more community partners. The program offers materials and training for tutors.

“We have access to curriculum materials in English and Spanish. The materials include an instructor manual, as well as reference manuals for the learners themselves. All of the curriculum materials are designed for peer-to-peer instruction. Research has shown peer-to-peer instruction is the most effective mode among older adults. Younger people can certainly teach the material but ideally, it's older adults teaching,” said Kosuth.

More than 123 people have gone through 38 classes so far. The program currently has about 20 instructors, and Kosuth said the grant supports up to 50.

‘I really hope that more people will take advantage of this so that we can get a good solid program because it's a very necessary service within McLean County,” said Kosuth.

Kosuth can be reached at ehkosut@ilstu.edu or (309) 438-2039.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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