By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
When you think about the digital divide, you probably think about children without laptops or internet access, and the effects of learning loss.
When the pandemic hit last year, many pivoted from offices or classrooms to video calls and meetings. But many senior citizens who lacked technology were not only left isolated and alone — they weren’t connected to frequent online township announcements, or to medical care that often switched to telehealth amid lockdowns and required social distancing.
While many relied on online services or apps for banking, bill payments, tax filing, Uber or Lyft rides, and food and prescription orders, seniors without technology struggled to do day-to-day tasks.
And when Montclair Institute for Lifelong Learning classes, Montclair History Center and township government meetings went online, many seniors couldn’t participate, Ann Lippel, president of Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place, said.
“The COVID pandemic exposed the impact of the digital divide, especially as it relates to our senior citizens. The pandemic will go away, but the vulnerability will remain,” Lippel said. “Unless we address this head-on, the increasing cultural reliance on the internet will impact our older citizens even more, causing increased isolation — social outcasts by default. And [the] next worst thing to being an untouchable is to be an unreachable.”
Now, the program is hoping the township will provide it with $30,000 in seed money for a digital connectivity infrastructure project. The cost would cover a pilot program to get 30 seniors a device, hot spot or Wi-Fi, education to get them up and running, and long-term IT assistance.
In Montclair, 11.3% of the population is 65 and above, and many of those community members aren’t technologically savvy, Lippel said.
“If you are not part of this infrastructure you are missing out on how to get through life easier,” she said.
In response to much of the senior population’s being technology-disadvantaged, yet dependent on being connected during the pandemic, Montclair Gateway to Aging in Place was formed to get devices, Wi-Fi and education to seniors throughout Montclair.
During the lockdown, Montclair Gateway, through a phone and mail survey, sought to assess how many seniors lacked a computer or a smartphone and internet access. The findings went beyond simply what devices respondents had. Some had smart TVs, but didn’t have connectivity. Some had laptops, but with no cameras. And many didn’t know how to navigate the internet.
“Moreover, based on recent livability indexes released by the United Way of Northern New Jersey, 35% of senior households in Montclair cannot afford the basics — housing, food, transportation, or health care on any regular basis. They are dependent on help from a variety of social services. None of us want to become dependent on others, but some of us will. Some of your parents may. And so may some of you,” Lippel wrote in the proposal to the township seeking the seed money.
Through Laptop Upcycle the Montclair not-for-profit that refurbishes laptops for those in need, Montclair Gateway was able to get more than 15 laptops to seniors who needed them. Hot spots were offered through the Montclair Public Library, but are only allowed three renewals, Lippel said.
Seeing that the problem still exists and the senior population still needs help with access to technology, Montclair Gateway sought incorporation as a nonprofit five months ago. In the meantime, the United Way of Northern New Jersey is serving as the group’s fiscal sponsor so that donations can be taken in. Montclair Gateway has begun fundraising efforts through its board of directors, individual donors, local foundations and family funds and has so far raised nearly $9,000.
“However, it will take months before all this can produce significant revenues, and the need is immediate,” Lippel said.
Montclair Gateway has asked for the $30,000 for digital infrastructure to either be reallocated from part of the senior services budget, or provided from the money Montclair anticipates from the American Rescue Plan.
“We believe that our achievements in aiding the vaccination outreach — increasing communications with the underserved, overcoming technological barriers, and using the available technology smartly and effectively — demonstrate our ability,” Lippel said.
This year’s senior services salaries budget is $187,159, up from $129,826, and pays for three full-time employees: a director, coordinator and assistant. The increase is due to the coordinator position changing from part time to full time, Township Communications Director Katya Wowk said.
The director position remains open after Katie York left in February, with existing staff members fulfilling the director’s duties. Wowk said the township anticipates a new director will start in a few weeks.
However, the general expenses budget for senior services went down, from $163,083 in 2020 to $153,050 this year. The largest portion of that budget is for senior transportation services, at $123,800, with the next being $10,000 for the Montclair Institute for Lifelong Learning, which offers free classes and cultural activities. The rest of the budget is for communications, office supplies and the Senior Citizen Advisory Committee.
“In 2030, one in five of Essex County residents will be at least 65 years of age, so we need an infrastructure to support a continuity of services that embraces all of our older residents,” Lippel said.
In the future, she envisions a virtual senior center portal where seniors can log on to access classes and get help with medical plans, retirement and telehealth support advice, psychological services and public transportation navigation.
The good news, Lippel said, is that seniors who do get connected are embracing technology.
For the last three months in 2020, there were 8,461 enrollments through virtual services, an increase from the 7,195 for all of 2019.