May 16

Healthy Waltham: Bridging the Digital Divide

photo of students in technology class with certificates

As an Area Agency on Aging, Springwell develops an Area Plan on Aging every 4 years. In 2020, Springwell’s area planning process started with a needs assessment that included large and small virtual public gatherings, focus groups, and surveys. Older adults, caregivers, and professionals participated, allowing Springwell to gather a wide range of views. One of the newly identified issues this year was a need for better access to digital technology and training in the use of technology to reduce social isolation for older adults. With this need and others identified, Springwell put out a request for grant proposals to meet the identified needs. Healthy Waltham had uncovered a similar need for digital technology in working with older adults during the pandemic and responded with a grant request for a well-designed program to meet the need in Waltham.

Healthy Waltham and Waltham Connections for Healthy Aging have long worked together to provide in-person programs and events for older adults. In 2020, along with many others, they shifted to virtual events but realized that many older adults in the community weren’t able to participate due to the lack of a computer and/or internet connection. Devoted volunteers Laura San Juan and Betsy Leutz spearheaded the group’s effort to respond with a new program to solve this lack of access and changed the lives of many older adults in Waltham.

With support for laptops and internet connectivity from Tech Goes Home Boston and a grant from Springwell for training lined up, they got to work. While following pandemic precautions, volunteers went door to door seeking those who were interested. Low-income applicants had to show a desire for learning the skills, a plan for using the technology, and a commitment to the 16-hour virtual training class. They delivered the computers and hot spots in parking lots and showed users the basics from 6 feet apart outside. Bilingual instruction in Spanish and English was offered. The first virtual course taught 24 older adults ranging in age from mid 60s to late 80s.

Participants report being delighted to get in touch with family and friends, order groceries online, make medical appointments online, and shop online. The group learned how to create documents and greeting cards. The social connections combatted loneliness One man in his mid-60s reports that since he can’t do physical work anymore, he is glad to have computer skills on his resume so that he can get a job doing data entry. Another participant loved the course so much that she got two friends to sign up the next time it was offered and brought them to the Senior Center herself because they didn’t know where to go.

Betsy and Laura share that they are happy to be “helping people who weren’t feeling connected in Waltham. Now that COVID numbers are lower, we are meeting at the Senior Center, and this helps people feel more connected. They feel welcome and see there are more resources for them as well.” Betsy adds, “this is the most rewarding volunteer work I have ever done. It changes people’s lives.” Springwell is honored to support this valuable training course with grant funding.