In this ever-accelerating information age, people’s news, health care, finances, and, of course, social lives are increasingly going digital. For some older adults, it can be a challenge to keep in step with it all.

Soon, though, seniors in Price County can get up to speed through the Connected Aging Communities initiative, a groundbreaking, community-development approach to ensuring elder independence through the adoption of the internet.

According to Gail Huycke, community development outreach specialist for the UW Extension’s Broadband & E-Commerce Education Center, she set about investigating technological education programs for seniors after her department was approached by Milwaukee-based Bader Philanthropies. Their concern, Huycke said, was that with all the internet-based solutions available for managing one’s day-to-day life, senior citizens were underutilizing those resources.

In the course of researching projects in Wisconsin, the greater U.S., and abroad, Huycke found that most seem to address only a single subset, such as how to send and receive email or how to use Facebook. With that in mind, the Connected Aging Communities template took form, born of a more holistic strategy.

Bader Philanthropies will be funding the project, which takes aim at community members aged 60 and older and will address connectivity across the realms of health care, personal finances, and — perhaps most importantly — social connection and overall well-being.

“What we know from research and programs that are out there, the number one reason seniors will adopt and utilize the internet is because of family and friends,” Huycke said, like connecting with grandkids or reconnecting with old military buddies.

Health care, too, is high on the list. With all the online tools at their disposal, seniors are more able than ever to live independently at home, whether through utilization of My Marshfield Clinic, where people can access their health records and manage their appointments, or Care My Way, which Huycke dubbed “the return of the house call,” putting patients face-to-face with nurse practitioners over a video connection.

Overall, the Connected Aging Communities approach is being dubbed “high tech, high touch,” as Huycke noted the human element to the learning process, whether people are learning to chat on ElderTree, refill prescriptions, or checking their bank accounts online. More than just learning “hands-on,” people need mentors to guide them through the process, and they need that person they can call in the evening for a refresher or if something doesn’t work.

“They need to be able to experience it, but they need ‘high touch’ from people as well to be that support system,” Huycke said, suggesting that mentors can range from loved ones to youth volunteers to recently retired, computer savvy peers.

Up to this point, most of the state’s focus has been on simply getting internet access to people, Huycke said. Now, as more and more people are gaining that access, Connected Aging Communities shows them how to take advantage of it.

“Just because you build it, doesn’t mean they will come,” Huycke quipped.

And indeed, there is no shortage of ideas for moving forward. With Flambeau Hospital taking the lead, the project is being brainstormed by a steering committee representing several Price County institutions, including the hospital, Marshfield Clinic, Price County Health & Human Services, Price County Telephone Company, and Northcentral Technical College.

Beth Hahn, director/financial manager of Flambeau Home Health and Hospice, detailed some ideas currently in the pipeline, such as a “Sip & Swipe” event — a kind of workshop where people can sit down with coffee and electronic devices to learn about the technology in an informal setting. Workshops could feature lessons on cyber security, how to use Skype, searching ancestry, or even coordinating a rideshare to a doctor’s appointment. While event dates and times have yet to solidify, Hahn said they are hoping to host a kickoff event before the end of October.

While the grant period runs through 2018, Hahn noted that additional grants are being sought for purchasing demo devices that people could, perhaps, check out at the library or be given away as door prizes at a luncheon — a way for folks to familiarize themselves with the technology and possibly inspire their purchasing of a device if they don’t already have one.

Local churches, libraries, and veterans services, as well as the Chequamegon and Phillips School Districts are partnering up, and community participants are still being recruited. With such diverse community resources, Huycke hoped for the program to become part of the local culture, allowing it to endure even after the grant monies are exhausted.

Now, with pilot programs set to launch in Park Falls and Manitowish Waters, many sets of eyes are watching to see how the new initiative flies.

“We have folks nationally saying, ‘Wow, it’s kind of a different approach. We haven’t approached broadband and senior adoption from this holistic community development approach,’” Huycke said, noting that AARP and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration are among the entities with piqued interest.

At the state level, members of the Connected Aging Communities advisory board — which includes Sen. Tom Tiffany — are seeing the need for policy change when it comes to keeping our seniors connected, Huycke said. And while it’s not university’s role to lobby for policy changes, she added, they have, at least, brought those parties to the table to facilitate those conversations.

“That’s been exciting because I think legislators are looking at what’s happening, and how do we, as a community, work together to make things better?” Huycke said.

(Copyright © 2020 APG Media)

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