United Way and partners keep seniors safe and connected

Published on November 23, 2020 in

Detroit resident Leo Altman is one of the hundreds of seniors who have received a laptop as part of the Connect 313 partnership.

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For many struggling families in our region, securing the support they need can often feel like a maze — full of red tape, dead ends and wrong turns. While a visit to a food pantry or one-time financial assistance might alleviate immediate concerns, families need ongoing support.

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Ask Leo Altman his age and he will likely tell you that he has, “been around awhile.”

Even with decades of knowledge under his belt, the 69-year-old Detroit native is still learning new things. Next up: Zoom, which he is planning to use to interact with friends and family during the holiday season.

Leo recently received a Microsoft Surface tablet courtesy of Connect 313, a collaborative partnership founded by the city of Detroit, Rocket Mortgage Classic, the Rocket Family of Companies, Microsoft and United Way for Southeastern Michigan, which is working to close Detroit’s digital divide.

Detroit senior receives tablet

Detroit resident Leo Altman is one of the hundreds of seniors who have received a laptop as part of the Connect 313 partnership.

Health and hope

Roughly 45 percent of Detroiters lack access to broadband internet such as cable, fiber optic or DSL, according to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. This digital divide, coupled with a lack of access to devices, has proven to be particularly devasting during the COVID-19 pandemic — keeping students from accessing online classes, parents from finding food or employment, and seniors from utilizing telehealth services.

United Way works to ensure all families in our region have access to programs and services that help them meet their basic needs, including seniors. Working with our partners to close the digital divide, we can help families navigate new challenges and create more stable households.

Utilizing Focus: HOPE’s broad distribution network and relationships, Connect 313 launched the Connecting Seniors initiative this fall. So far, the collaborative is on target to deliver devices, training and tech-enabled health care to 4,000 low-income seniors and their caregivers by the end of the year.

“It’s an excellent program,” Leo said. “I didn’t know what Zoom was until about two weeks ago. The technology thing is a whole new world for me.”

The program is made possible through the Connect 313 fund and a $3.9 million grant from the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities Rapid Response Initiative.

Staying safe, staying connected

Seniors are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, which has led many to self-quarantine for extended periods throughout 2020 — in some cases even forgoing routine health appointments.

“Many seniors have been trapped in their homes since March,” said Jordan Falby, manager of talent and workforce initiatives at United Way for Southeastern Michigan. “They haven’t seen their families. They’re not able to get out and socialize and do the things that would normally keep their spirits up. The simple act of being able to see their loved ones — even on a screen — can make a big difference in their lives.”

United Way partner Focus: HOPE delivers monthly food boxes to 41,000 low-income seniors in southeastern Michigan, requests have increased by more than 4,500 since the beginning of the pandemic. Also, they’ve found that providing food is not enough, said Autumn Evans, fundraiser and grant manager at the nonprofit.

“With the pandemic, our seniors are more isolated than ever,” she explained. “People need to be connected to resources and to one another.

“That’s what we hope the tablets will do.”

Access to virtual health services

A recent Wayne State University study found that older adults in Detroit die at 2.5 times the rate of older adults living in the rest of Michigan. Detroit seniors have also experienced disproportionate impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, both in health care outcomes and isolation from community support programs. Increasing access and adoption of tech-enabled health care is an important step toward eliminating inequities.

Through the Connecting Seniors program, participants get much more than just tablets and training. Seniors and their caregivers also have access to the Wayne State University suite of health care services and numerous tools developed by Microsoft + Accenture in response to COVID-19.

“Our hypothesis is that simply being better connected and less isolated will also help improve health outcomes,” Jordan said.

Leo has several pre-existing conditions that increase his risk of experiencing serious complications with COVID-19. He is taking advantage of the virtual health services, recently scheduling his first online appointment with his primary care doctor.

“A few people in my building have passed away from COVID,” he said. “I’m taking it serious. Very serious. This virus is nothing to play with. Keeping up with my regular appointments helps me maintain my health.”

Online for the holidays

Because of the ongoing pandemic, this Thanksgiving will look different for Leo and many others. He’s planning to pick up a turkey from a local church and take it to his sister who will prepare it along with the traditional trimmings. Instead of gathering with family for food and football as he normally would, he will eat his meal at home and interact via Zoom.

Cynthia Mitchell, 72, also recently received a tablet from Focus: HOPE and her daughter is helping her learn how to use it. She proudly said that so far, she has ordered groceries online and watched a movie. She shared that her family is planning to get together for the holiday, but she will adhere to CDC guidelines — staying home and communicating through Zoom.

Most of all, she is looking forward to using her tablet to see her niece in Texas.

“It’ll be nice to see her,” she said. “It’s like being together when we can’t be together.”

Added impact

Since launching the Connecting Seniors program, the team at Focus: HOPE says there have been added benefits for seniors and their families. This is especially true in cities like Detroit, where thousands of families cannot afford devices and high-speed internet.

“Many seniors are living with their children or raising their grandchildren, so there are multigenerational benefits when adding a device and connectivity to a home,” Autumn said. “Affordability was a major barrier for these households and, in many cases, even if they were able to afford the device, the prospect of setting it up and maintaining internet was overwhelming.”

Leo, a self-described “political junkie” is using his tablet to stay up-to-date and informed on the latest election news. He’s also learning more about technology and the world around him by watching YouTube videos.

While many of us take the convenience of technology for granted as a part of our daily routines, it is important to understand the impact that an ongoing lack of digital connectivity can have. By increasing access to technology, we can bridge long-standing gaps in access to health care, employment, and education.

To learn more about how United Way is working to create stable households across our region, click here.