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App State helps older adults stay healthy and cross the digital divide

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BOONE, NC -- Imagine living in an area where four clinically approved wellness assessments are offered free of charge to seniors, while the same tests might cost hundreds of dollars if ordered by a doctor somewhere else? What’s not to like? This is the situation at Appalachian State University, where the Interprofessional Clinic uses the free tests to help train both undergrad and graduate students. But during the pandemic there’s been a hitch, there's not enough seniors signing up for the tests.

“We discovered that what it came down to was a lack of tech savvy among seniors who were otherwise eligible to take advantage of our Aging Well Support Program,” explains Chris Cardwell, an intern and candidate for a Masters Degree in Social Work at App State.

"For example, people isolating at home weren’t hearing about the tests because they weren’t on social media. They weren’t seeing flyers about the tests because their library, senior center, VFW hall, church, or other venue was closed. They didn’t know how to access their websites.

Many of the households in this rural area have no broadband access, and Wi-Fi hotspots were no longer available at libraries or senior centers. Even when individuals were able to find the assessment tests online, they weren’t always comfortable with completing the registration process, also online," said Cardwell.

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Enter App State Cyber Seniors, a pilot program also offered by App State. In this intergenerational program, college students are first trained as digital mentors. This enables them to give older adults effective guidance in accessing and using an email account, the internet, social media, and other apps like Zoom. Especially during times of isolation, this opens up new worlds for them in shopping, banking, learning, and socializing. It’s also helping to break down ageism barriers and stereotypes among the young.

Both students and their mentors are gaining deeper understandingf and connections between the generations. “Older individuals are smart and willing to learn just the same as any college student,” marveled one undergrad.

“My eyes are now open to the ability for young people to care about older people,” mentioned one senior.

Cardwell notes, “Once an individual has gone through our Cyber Seniors course, he or she is so much more confident about finding the website online, completing the registration, and of course taking the assessment itself from the safety of their home.

If they hit a snag, they know they can call their digital mentor and get it straightened out, or even do a little troubleshooting themselves. It’s really quite impressive to watch their progress.”

Not only are program participants great examples of lifelong learning; they are being proactive about their health, taking assessments on cognition and memory, balance and fall risk, behavioral health and nutrition that are designed to detect problems with early, rather than waiting for troubling symptoms later on.

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