Digital life in hilltowns: Landmark survey outlines how older populations use tech

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By JAMES PENTLAND

Staff Writer

Published: 06-11-2024 6:51 PM

WILLIAMSBURG — Advocates who work to keep older people up to speed with digital technology gathered Monday to mark the release of a landmark report on how hilltown residents are faring.

Developed from a survey sent to people 60 and older in Hampshire County’s seven northwestern hilltowns, the report details the uses of technology — connection with family, telehealth, entertainment — as well as the barriers to use for older adults.

The survey, compiled by the Northern Hilltowns Consortium of Councils on Aging, was sent to 3,500 people, 1,200 of whom responded.

“It’s the best survey response I’ve ever gotten,” said Peg Whalen, the consortium’s digital development director, who said she has done survey research for 40 years.

Perhaps surprisingly, 85% of respondents said they use digital technology every day, though many said they didn’t want to but had to, Whalen said.

As one person quoted in the report said, “As I get older and increasingly challenged by skills needed to use technology, it becomes more pervasive and complex.”

Seven in 10 said they have a health portal, and four in 10 said they used technology for doctor’s appointments. Whalen noted that, in the medical field and elsewhere, people increasingly are being redirected to a digital connection to do what they used to do by phone.

Four in ten talked about using computers for connecting with others, especially family, and wanting to learn more about ways to do that. Whalen told the story of one elderly man who wanted help setting up an app that would cut his fuel costs for the 90-mile round trip to visit his girlfriend, whom he’d met online.

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At this point, 70% of people in the seven hilltowns — Chesterfield, Goshen, Cummington, Plainfield, Westhampton, Williamsburg and Worthington — have broadband internet, Whalen said, but whether it’s affordable is another question.

Other barriers faced by rural residents include outdated equipment and software, limited skills and privacy concerns, said Kathy Bisbee, director of the Alliance for Digital Equity.

The alliance, housed at Baystate Health, represents 64 organizations across western Massachusetts, such as libraries and councils on aging, working on bridging the digital divide, Bisbee said.

The downsides of digital devices were a decisive factor for some. Of the 15% of older hilltown adults who don’t use computer technology, Whalen said, one in four feared identity theft, while 15% feared scams.

One woman who considered herself reasonably tech-savvy talked about losing $12,000 in an online scam, she said, while a woman who shelled out $500 based on a warning that her computer had developed a problem was subjected to such prolonged anger from her husband that she eventually gave up her cellphone.

Consortium Chair Janice Gibeau said the organization’s efforts had opened doors and, particularly in the wake of the COVID pandemic, was helping people in rural areas to stay connected.

Besides a grant for the study from the Massachusetts Association of Councils on Aging, the consortium secured a $300,000 grant from the Executive Officer of Elder Affairs to set up a program called Tech Connect, Whalen said.

The program will provide help with obtaining internet access, getting devices connected, training in how to use devices, and technical support, she said.

State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, who became the legislator for all seven towns under redistricting in 2021, said the pandemic had underscored the problems with digital inequality.

Sign-ups for unemployment benefits or vaccines were completely online, she said, noting that local councils on aging jumped in to help people get the vaccine.

Sabadosa said there was a need to figure out a role for the state in promoting digital equity.

“It’s important to know where we can help,” she said.

Michael DeChiara, co-founder of the Alliance for Digital Equity, said the federal government does have money available for building out the internet, and a chance to secure those funds is coming up.

The Federal Communications Commission has a map showing how well connected the nation is, but it contains inaccurate information, DeChiara said, and the commission is opening a 30-day window for people to challenge its data. For Massachusetts, the window opens June 20.

He described it as an “all hands on deck” moment. Information on how to find and challenge the FCC’s map is available on the alliance’s website or the Massachusetts Broadband Institute site.

Whalen offered thanks to Damia Stewart and Jess Dupuis, of Northampton design firm Transit Authority Figures, for turning all the data into an attractive report.

James Pentland can be reached at jpentland@gazettenet.com.