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Local View: Older Minnesotans being left behind by increasingly online world

From the column: "Linking the development of a state digital-equity plan to existing broadband-access initiatives strategically positions the Minnesota State Library Services to lead digital inclusion and digital literacy."

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The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the importance of digital equity with the acceleration of digital transformation occurring in workplaces, education, and commerce. Technology is now considered an essential resource — a necessity for civic and cultural participation, lifelong learning, and access to critical services.

However, virtual as the new normal is exposing an age-based digital divide within our state of Minnesota. Older adults have lower access to the internet, fewer digital skills, and more limited use of technology. The digital divide contributes to increased social isolation, the severity of chronic diseases, and an overall diminished quality of life. The problem is worse in rural areas than metro areas.

A few facts: Minnesota already has a larger 65-plus population than that of school-age children; and, from 2010 to 2030, the number of Minnesota’s older adults will double. Greater Minnesota is home to a larger share of older adults, outpacing metro areas in the ratio of older adults to school-age children.

As 10,000 baby boomers retire daily from now until 2030 across the U.S., retirees are realizing there is no longer an IT department available to them. With rapid and continual changes in technology, ongoing adoption and assistive services are essential, regardless of age or where a person lives.

Prevailing ageist beliefs and behaviors are driving our public response to the age-based digital divide. Older adults can often feel that they are invisible in our communities, perceived to be a burden, and rarely prioritized for community engagement and resource investment. When asked to participate in community discussions, older adults may be asked to be included in a focus group but are rarely stakeholders in the decision-making process.

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The current aging narrative primarily focuses on supports and services and not enough on attaining quality-of-life goals, impacting our policies, systems, and structures while creating ongoing barriers to age well.

There is a timely opportunity, however, for Minnesota to achieve equitable digital inclusion and increase digital literacy. The Library Services & Technology Act of 1996 (LSTA) established a federal grant program to identify priorities centered on technology infrastructure. Under the leadership of the State Library Services, Minnesota’s library network of 356 public locations has historically provided community-based digital devices and training resources. Every five years, the LSTA requires state library agencies to submit a five-year grant plan identifying state priorities for LSTA funds. With the 2022-2025 five-year plan due this summer, Minnesota has the opportunity to prioritize digital inclusion and digital literacy programs that champion Minnesota’s rural older adults.

Minnesota has a significant funding opportunity via the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act. Linking the development of a state digital-equity plan to existing broadband-access initiatives strategically positions the Minnesota State Library Services to lead digital inclusion and digital literacy, using its extensive statewide footprint.

The broad deployment of digital inclusion and digital literacy programs will enable Minnesota’s growing older adult population to fully participate in the virtual new normal.

The opportunity is now. Baby boomers continue to change the world. We have the population size, voting capacity, and drive to expect positive quality-of-life outcomes throughout our lifespans. In order to ensure equitable participation in the modern digital landscape, we must have IT services accessible to us regardless of where we live in Minnesota. The Minnesota State Library Services has the geographic reach, knowledge, expertise, and savvy to create real change and implement digital inclusion and digital literacy as an essential healthy aging strategy benefiting all of Minnesota.

Ann Bussey of Side Lake is a fellow for Project REACH (Rural Experts Advancing Community Health), a joint initiative of the University of Minnesota Rural Health Program through the Office of Academic Clinical Affairs and the Clinical and Translational Science Institute. She is retired and serving as chair of the Minnesota Rural Health Advisory Committee.

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Ann Bussey

Related Topics: LOCAL VIEWTECHNOLOGY
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