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Marcia Kerz

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Let's Bring Aging Americans Into the Information Age

Posted: 12/21/10 01:46 PM ET

As young Americans have become the most tech-savvy generation in history, the generations preceding them have not kept pace - to the detriment of their economic and even physical well-being.

Technology literacy remains a critical challenge for mature adults; the Pew Research Center reports that only 42 percent of adults age 65 and over use the Internet, compared to 79 percent of adults overall.

Why is that so vitally important to the health and financial status of mature adults? Consider, first, that every day, more information about Medicare and prescription drug benefits is available online. This information, when understood and applied, can improve older adults' health and finances. But many eligible seniors are not receiving the benefits to which they're entitled -- often because they're unaware of them or lack the skills to apply for them.

Meanwhile, among working adults aged 55 or older, the unemployment rate has more than doubled over the past three years, making the current downturn particularly painful for older Americans. Partly as a result, The National Council on Aging reports that nearly one-third of Americans aged 60 and older are economically insecure, living at or below 200 percent of the poverty level ($21,660 per year for a single person). They face a daily struggle with housing and health care bills, inadequate nutrition, access to transportation, and ever-diminishing savings.

One reason for this situation: Many older adults are struggling to find or keep jobs that require some proficiency with technology but offer little on-the-job training. Job openings are primarily advertised online, and job-seekers need technology skills just to apply. While older employees are rated highly for their judgment, attendance, punctuality and quality consciousness, their lack of computer skills makes them an endangered species in the workplace.

These workers share a great and growing need for training in computer skills. But this training must be tailored to their learning styles, so that it does not leave them even more intimidated, frustrated, and unprepared.

As they address the problems of long-term unemployment and an aging population, Congress should therefore consider how to fine-tune the nation's major skills training and job placement program for older Americans, the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP). The program needs to meet the needs of older workers and retirees in the Information Age.

Established under section 502e of the Older Americans Act, which is on the table for reauthorization this coming year, SCSEP should incorporate the lessons of successful programs for seniors. That is why Rep. William Clay (D-Mo.), with GOP support led by Republican Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), has introduced legislation providing for SCSEP to collaborate with national and community service programs, as well as nonprofit workforce training programs with proven track records.

We know older adults can learn these skills. A recent University of Miami study provides evidence of the effectiveness, for example, of the Connections computer and Internet courses offered by OASIS, a St. Louis-based nonprofit. The Connections program uses a well-researched curriculum and proceeds at an appropriate pace for older adults. The University of Miami study found that participants gained both general computer knowledge and more-specific Internet knowledge at levels far surpassing gains by control groups.

The federal government is attempting more and more to invest in what works and ditch what doesn't. Workforce development agencies can better help older adults increase their value in today's challenging job market by using evidence-based programs to help close the technology gap.

There's room for debate about recent calls to raise retirement ages and modify Medicare and Social Security. But as Congress decides on renewing the Older Americans Act, lawmakers from both parties should be able to agree to improve the nation's major training program for older Americans. In the era of laptops, search engines and social networking, older Americans increasingly need the same tools to work, communicate and take care of their health that their children and grandchildren use. Considering their age and the circumstances of today's economy, they may even need them more.