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Making Rural Connections

Sue Campbell September 9, 2019

Despite challenges, tech can ease isolation for rural older Americans.

Betty, 93, pedals a stationary bicycle in her home, where she lives alone.

“ElliQ,” Betty says to a small white robot sitting on a table. “Tell me a joke.”

“Did you hear about the claustrophobic astronaut?”

“No,” Betty says from her bike.

“Apparently he just needed a little space,” says ElliQ. Betty grins and chuckles.

The light-hearted exchange, captured on video for a story about the robot’s creator, Intuition Robotics, shows technology’s tremendous power to make life better for older Americans. Artificial intelligence and voice-activation devices can make it more pleasant to age in place, as 87% of those over 65 say they want to. Devices can provide reminders to take medication, eat lunch and exercise. They can connect family members and display photos. Beyond that, they can serve as quasi-companions, helping to ease social isolation. The makers of ElliQ report that many of their beta testers would tell the robot that they loved her.

Other new tech solutions, including improvements to cars, apps that match care services with those who need them, and health devices that monitor falls and even air flow may make remaining at home safer, too.

But in a sad twist, some of the people who most need this tech because of where they live can’t take advantage of it — because of where they live.

Assuming Access

ElliQ and Alexa, Uber and Lyft, and a myriad of other tech companies build their services expecting that customers will have high-speed Internet. Yet, according to the Federal Communications Commission’s most recent update on the topic, 19 million Americans, or 6% of the population, lack access to broadband. In rural areas, the problem, though improving, remains acute. There, “nearly one-fourth of the population —14.5 million people—lack access to this service,” the report says. “In tribal areas, nearly one-third of the population lacks access.”

And in rural parts of the country, there’s a disproportionate number of older Americans, about 10 million over age 65, facing more risks and disadvantages than their urban counterparts. They have more chronic disease and disability and face greater social isolation, with fewer resources and services to help them, according to findings from a 2017 summit on rural aging in America.

Distance is entwined with social isolation. In the country, neighbors tend to live far from one another. Most destinations, whether to the grocery store or a senior center, require a drive. Once an older person can’t drive or has physical limitations that make travel harder, isolation can quickly set in.

The biggest urban-rural gap, according to the Gallup-Sharecare Wellbeing Index,  is social well-being. But the same poll showed country-dwellers have a sense of pride in their communities, and a sense of belonging. Solutions to social isolation can rise from the strong identity that glues rural areas together.

Addressing Real Needs

Across the country, federal, state and local organizations, nonprofits and private companies are tapping into rural communities, asking older people there what they need. Two big bucket items top the list: Help in using technology to connect with friends and family over distances, and access to transportation to get to crucial medical appointments and maintain independence. Finding solutions can keep older adults connected in every sense of the word.

Some examples of what’s working:

Tech Spread: In Upstate New York, Older Adults Technology Services, or OATS, borrowed an idea from New York City to see if it would work in a part of the world where half of seniors experience isolation. The nonprofit partnered with the state to set up inviting centers to teach tech, bringing students to them. The students took to the training, formed a community of peers and some became trainers themselves. Nine hundred took the course. Eighty-three percent reported a higher quality of life after the training and 77% said they felt more confident living independently.

According to a new AARP survey, grandparents cite distance as the main barrier in keeping up with their grandchildren, with whom they have a deep bond. With that critical relationship as a motivator, more will continue to use technology to stay connected.

Forward Drive: Rural life demands cars, but most older Americans eventually face a time where they want to continue living alone but can no longer operate a vehicle. Several entities are addressing rural transportation.

In Vermont, Public Transit Coordinator Ross MacDonald wondered why he could find a flight anywhere in the world in seconds with a search engine, but couldn’t figure out how to get around his own state. Go! Vermont uses new software and vehicle tracking technology so residents can find any means of public transit, from carshares to ferries, and get help connecting them all to reach their destinations.

Feonix Mobility Rising is a nonprofit operating in five states with a mission to launch and expand transit options in rural areas, sometimes partnering with municipalities or other nonprofits.

In rural Missouri, HealthTran uses tech to help patients find rides to their doctors, with software that tracks who needs transportation and when drivers are available. A human coordinator helps patients arrange trips, and health care providers assist in funding.

In addition, safety advances made for self-driving cars are trickling into regular vehicles, helping some older adults continue driving for longer, says Laurie Orlov of Aging in Place Technology Watch. “Self-driving vehicles aren’t going to happen anytime soon, she says, “but the technology developed for them are in cars on the road now.”

These tech solutions may not be as adorable as ElliQ, who lights up when spoken to, has “body language” programming that makes her tip her head when listening and knows truly corny jokes. But many are affordable, practical solutions aimed at reaching deep into rural America to forge connections, offer solutions and combat isolation.

Stria sponsors GrandPad and Home Instead made “The Role of Technology in Social Isolation” special editorial series possible.

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Sue Campbell

Sue Campbell has been a digital and print journalist for 25 years, and was the editorial director for PBS Next Avenue She started her career as a magazine writer, and holds an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing. For 15 years, she lived on 13 acres in Scandia, Minnesota, where she raised chickens -- and three children.

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