With so many programs and resources for older adults "going virtual" during the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations are faced with questions about how to ensure they are reaching the most vulnerable members of their communities. Tom Kamber, Founder and Executive Director of OATS joins host and CEO of the American Society on Aging, Peter Kaldes on Future Proof to share how Older Adults Technology Services is bridging the digital divide, helping to ensure that everyone has access to the best technology while embracing the call for racial justice around the country.
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Listen to the Podcast
On the Black Lives Matter movement
"When something like Black Lives Matter emerges as an international dialogue, we see that as a precious opportunity for us to do our work better. To be responsive and to learn from each other about how to do better work."
"I think Black Lives Matter has been a great influence on the organization in terms of the chance to really explore some of these things. We've had some really, really intense and really thoughtful discussions, and it's changed some of the programming a already. "
On the impact of COVID-19 on older adults
"COVID effectively pulled the covers off of a long standing, biased and inequitable way that the United States treats older adults in our communities. ... part of what's been going on is that the country has effectively let seniors bear the burden of increased risk due to social isolation and lack of digital connectivity without really recognizing that there's a cost to be born there that is only really coming due when there's a crisis."
On partnering with corporations
"The nonprofit partners out there should treat the corporate world as equal partners in trying to make social change. Even though a company like Humana has massive distribution networks and a huge amount have resources and they're super professional, and they have a lot of a lot of kind of clout and capacity, we, as nonprofit activists who've been working in community settings for years, bring something distinctive to the table, including our networks."
"Too often when people think about aging, we all know the stereotypes, they conflate or mix together the idea of aging and sickness, or aging and declining or aging and frailty. And while certainly many people are frail, and many people need care, we all need care through different points in our lives. And it's not what aging is about. And it doesn't have to be what aging is about."
Resources mentioned in this episode
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Hi everyone, my name is PeterKaldis. I am the CEO of the American Society on Aging and welcome to Future Proof. This entire second season a Future Proof we've been focusing on equity issues. And on today's final episode of the season, I'm delighted to share that we have Tom Kamber on. He is the founder and executive director of Older Adults Technology Services or OATS in New York City, where his organization has helped more than 30,000 older adults get online. And he created the first technology-themed Community Center for older adults in the United States. Tom, welcome to Future Proof.
Thank you. I'm very excited to be part of this.
So Tom, today we'll be talking about how the issues of equity and justice intersect with the important work you do teaching older adults how to use technology, and really fomenting social change. So let's start at the beginning. Let's talk a little bit about Senior Planet, your Planet facilities and OATS. How are they equitable for all older adults?
Well, when we first started working at OATS in 2004, our first seven years of operation involved going around New York City with laptops and helping train people right in their own neighborhoods. We never even started our own center called Senior Planet until almost halfway through the organization's lifespan, to the present day--we're gonna keep going, of course. And for many years we went right to people's communities. Instead of starting a competing organization or program and having seniors have to come to us, we were going right to their senior centers. We were going right to the nursing homes, into the housing organizations in neighborhoods like Bedford Stuyvesant and South Bronx, and in different places. We saw the technology intervention that we were doing as beginning with underserved communities and beginning with people who come could go right downstairs in their building or right across the street to the senior center and get super high quality programming.
When we started the Senior Planet center in Manhattan, we deliberately found a spot that was right in the middle of the transit spaces. And I know that sounds, you know, kind of obvious, but to locate a center in Manhattan, where it has to be in the west side that people can get to it, the rent on spaces like that can be upwards of $100 per square foot. So it's extremely expensive and very challenging to get a place that everyone can get to that's easily accessible. That's at retail. We wanted it to be right down in the ground level where people could see it.
We looked at 70 different locations before we found a place that was both accessible, affordable, and also, frankly, fantastic. On some level equitability to us means not just making sure that we can get to everybody, that everybody can get to us, and that everyone has an equal equally positive experience. But it also means that for older people that are coming to take programs like we're delivering and that other ASA members are delivering, they deserve the best. You know, we're older adults, we're working with a nonprofit organization, we want to make sure that our experience with that organization is at the same level as what people who have more means are getting. Seniors deserve that they deserve the best. And so we really try to deliver a really strong quality program there. And of course, all the Center's are ADA accessible and the doors are 36 inches wide. And there's the push button on the outside that opens them and desks are at the right level of bathrooms are accessible. We do a lot of work to make sure that that's there. And finally be teaching five different languages. So people can come in and ask questions in Spanish and Russian.
Yeah, and you don't have senior planet facilities only in New York City, right. You work with partners across the country. Is that right?
Yes, it is. So we've been working in six different states over the last few years. We started by expanding outside of New York into rural upstate New York, which is still New York State, but it's very different from the city. And we've had a real passion for reaching and connecting with rural areas and low density communities around the country. We've been doing it very heavily in in Colorado and frontier regions in Colorado and small towns like Fruta. And looking at Texas, the Rio Grande Valley, now we're really looking to expand our rural programming. We have a Senior Planet center that we launched in Denver, which is totally awesome, and is kind of an anchor for the whole state there. It's funded by the Next 50 Initiative. And we're working with partner organizations in Texas and in California, the Avenida center in Palo Alto, in Florida, as you know, at the South Florida Institute on Aging, where you helped us just get up and running. And also in Maryland with the Montgomery County Ultra Montgomery program. So we've been really able to launch programs, some of them with Senior Planet centers, some of them we're really still working just to partner relationships, but bringing those Senior Planet programs. It's a combination of technology and social impact. But frankly, we don't have to invent the local wheels because the people down there have all the local expertise in each community. And we can come in and really collaborate with them to develop really powerful programming.
So let's talk about the programming. You already mentioned that you offer the curriculum in about five languages. Let's talk about some other things that you offer. I saw that you have a book club and you just read Born a Crime and, and there's probably other program that that ensures inclusivity.
Yeah, absolutely. We've been working for years to make sure that our programs are really engaging for people that are looking to even the playing field. Still to this day, most people who show up at Senior Planet for the first time, have a tech question. They come to us because they know that they're going to get treated respectfully. And their technology questions are going to be answered at a high quality and also situated within their aging lifestyle so that they can make something out of the participation that they're engaging in. So a lot of our training still on-ramps people in how to use an iPad, how to use a Chromebook, how to use a PC.
Most recently, we've been working with a project with the housing department here in New York City, giving away T Mobile enabled LG tablets. And so there's a whole piece of the puzzle that's about helping people get the technology platform that's appropriate and leverage it and use it.
Beyond that, we do a lot of programming around helping people live their best lives of older adults, and in many cases that really is about thinking about connecting with our community in a meaningful way and feeling like they can really thrive. And so we've been very conscious to reach out to underserved communities and neighborhoods, for example, that may not necessarily come to Manhattan for programming, because they're thinking, "oh, well, I'm from Bed Stuy" or, "I'm from Queens Bridge" or somewhere and we'll go to Queens Bridge and do a special program to bring people to our centers so that we have a really strong racial and income and demographic diversity in programming.
We did a survey a while ago and it turned out that 30% of the people at our center in Manhattan were coming from outside of Manhattan into the center of the city to take the programs because they felt welcomed, engaged. In terms of the diversity of programming, we have our book clubs, obviously focused on topics of racial integration and engagement. We've had really interesting musical events where a gentleman who was writing on the African American Experience wrote a play about the Green Book when African Americans were unable to stay in hotels back in the 40s and 50s, because of Jim Crow. They had an informal guide to places that you could stay that would allow an African American traveler or family to stay somewhere while they were traveling away from home. It's called the Green Book. And he wrote this wonderful play, and he's been workshopping his creative expression at Senior Planet and doing some broadcasts with that which has been really neat.
We teach in Spanish, and I'm very active in the Latin community in the music world. So we have a lot of Salsa music playing at our events. Our art classes are all totally duplicated in Spanish. We also teach in Russian and Chinese. And because relationship we with one of our funders, in Bengali, which is pretty cool. So people really get a sense when you join Senior Planet and you come participate, that it's a big tent. You can be whoever you want to be, as long as you're respectful of the other diversity in the community. We want you, regardless of income or or background or ethnicity, or what have you, it really makes a difference for people and I think they really enjoy that.
And, Tom, you know, earlier we were talking about how you make sure that your programming remains relevant for your students who attend. I understand you've started an internal taskforce, specifically around Black Lives Matter work and other issues? So let's talk a little bit about that kind of engagement that you have with the people that you serve.
Absolutely. When I started OATS we really envisioned our work as a social change activity. So when you talk to somebody at Senior Planet or OATS, and you say, "What is OATS?" they're not going to say, "oh, we're, we're an educational institution." They're going to say that we're a social change organization. We're about social justice. And we're motivated by the opportunities that technology presents to us to make the world a more equitable and just place.
So when something like Black Lives Matter emerges as an international dialogue, we see that as a precious opportunity for us to do our work better. To be responsive and to learn from each other about how to do better work. And so we immediately instituted a task force at OATS which has been looking at both internal processes, programmatic opportunities, and also external relationships to make sure that we are really trying to do the best we can to build our awareness and connection and sensitivity and quality in terms of dealing with racial diversity of the organization. And it's been a real godsend for us. I think Black Lives Matter has been a great influence on the organization in terms of the chance to really explore some of these things. We've had some really, really intense and really thoughtful discussions, and it's changed some of the programming a already. As you were noticing the book clubs focusing on a book by Trevor Noah. But there's a lot of thought and effort going into making sure that we're really being more inclusive and more engaging, not just with the program activities, but also things like, as we do recruitment, how can we make sure that we're reaching out to communities of color to make sure that people hear about our job postings. And even things like the way that we describe qualifications for new employees at OATS, some people thought that might be perceived by people in communities of color as exclusive at times. So we're tweaking some of the language in our employment practices to make it clear that if people have comparable experience that they're also encouraged to apply, so that it's not seen as a place where you can't really get a job at OATS it's less you have a degree from Elite college. A lot of people don't have access to elite college. And we don't want to just limit ourselves to that population that does. So we're looking for ways to really reach people in a more broad and diverse way.
I love those tips on diversity, equity and inclusion and the workplace and hiring. You mentioned it in programming. I'm wondering if you could also share how Senior Planet and OATS helped the city or those in need during COVID. Particularly as we heard from a lot of our ASA members that, given strict quarantines in place in a variety of cities across the country, people turn to digital to and technology to help with the delivery of services. So I'm wondering, what did you do and what did OATS and Senior Planet do in New York?
Well, COVID effectively pulled the covers off of a long standing, biased and inequitable way that the United States treats older adults in our communities. And I think all the people watching this video, I'm sure, are very conscious of the idea of what's going on with ageism in America and the negative stereotypes that so many people have about older adults. But part of what's been going on is that the country has effectively let seniors bear the burden of increased risk due to social isolation and lack of digital connectivity without really recognizing that there's a cost to be born there that is only really coming due when there's a crisis. So when, for example, the year before COVID happened, you have even 40% of older Americans lacking broadband connectivity at home. So four out of 10 don't have access to decent quality internet at home. And that's the problem in terms of online shopping and communications and digital health and things. But it's it's a fatal problem when we have something like COVID taking place. And so we immediately started calling on the city, through our advocacy components at Senior Planet, to do more to get older adults online and make sure people could access high quality programming.
We did a couple of things. First, OATS immediately pivoted all of our programs into digital. We had a two week, I don't know if you call it a boot camp, but it was a flurry of activity where the staff were working 14-16 hour days at times, to convert, (we have 3000 pages of curriculum) convert all that book based curriculum into models that can be delivered digitally. And we started teaching classes digitally, we taught over 500 different courses since COVID started online. We had to retrain our staff, we had to learn about what platforms we were going to focus on, Zoom being the big one. But there are a bunch of others and we tested a few that we didn't use.
We learned a lot about working with partner organizations to support them. We were getting hundreds of calls from senior centers saying, "How do we keep doing Senior Center programming?" or, "Can we parallel it online? And if we do, how do we track it? How do we measure success? How do we pick program topics? How do we utilize zoom? And how do we build it to the city so that we can get paid for this work and be able to stay alive as an organization in the field." So we were able to create a whole digital infrastructure to support the partners out there.
And then at the after about a month of that, we started establishing some real good baselines. People really liked the programs. Our satisfaction scores for the participants went from, it's called the Net Promoter Score, went from an 84 up to a 92. So the older adults that are participating are telling us that they're having an even better experience or at least they're valuing it more highly than they did even in the face to face examples of that. So we were able to establish that new benchmark.
There were two things that made a big difference after that. One is the city responded to our call for increasing digital opportunities for people here in New York by agreeing to fund 10,000 free T Mobile tablets with free internet for a year for residents in the public housing system here in New York for older adults. And that's the largest program of its kind like that in the history of New York as far as we know, for seniors. We were extremely gratified that the mayor made that decision. And then we were chosen as the partner to deliver all the training and support to people. So we were on the phone with 10,000 older adults, teaching them on the phone, how to take this box, unwrap the box and connect it to the internet so that, once they got up and running, we could then use that device to teach Zoom classes and work with them and make the most out of them. We've been doing a lot of that work over the last 60 days. Super popular program really successful.
And then the last part is that on a national level, we were able to convince Humana, although I have to say Humana called us first, so it's really to their credit that it was their idea. They called and said, "What can we do for older adults during the crisis? We know people are dying, and we want to help save lives." And we said the number one thing we can do is leverage new institutional partnerships to help seniors get online. And they devoted $3 million to a connectivity initiative to help spark partnerships around the country that will bring older adults online and give them that connectivity and support that enables them to survive and even hopefully thrive in the post COVID times.
I think that's an amazing opportunity that the Humana Foundation has given you and I'm wondering, you can imagine many of our members are trying to figure out how to bridge that digital divide. I hope you would consider some ASA members in this partnership of yours. What's the name of the partnership? And where can they find more details,
We're calling it the Aging Connected, a National Digital Engagement Consortium for Older Adults. And it's on Senior Planet, it's going to be available through the OATS website as well. If you're wanting just to connect to us and trying to partner just send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. And that'll get you to the people that manage our digital switchboard and to the right person. ASA is one of the partners we actually named when we were talking to Humana. So I'm going to drag you into this right now and propose right now that you guys become a member of this consortium.
Not a problem. You heard it here first. Let's talk about it.
There you go. And what we're trying to say here is, the nonprofit partners out there should treat the corporate world as equal partners in trying to make social change. Even though a company like Humana has massive distribution networks and a huge amount have resources and they're super professional, and they have a lot of a lot of kind of clout and capacity, we, as nonprofit activists who've been working in community settings for years, bring something distinctive to the table, including our networks. So I've been to ASA, all the conferences. I speak at the conferences. I hang around in the the hotel lobbies and talk to everybody and I go to all of the different workshops and I've learned so much from ASA partners over the years. And that knowledge is precious, because a company like Humana, they're not in our horizontal down here. So when we can work with our own network to bring together a distribution network for people, for example, to get low income people to take advantage of internet offerings that Comcast has available. Right now today, low income, older adults who are in Comcast footprints can take advantage of a thing called Internet Essentials, but many of them don't know about it. So we want to partner with organizations like ASA, and all the members to distribute knowledge about that and help people get online and take advantage what's already an available resource that people may not even be really utilizing. And so those kinds of connections are really critical for us to make the most out of this investment. Our target is to take that investment from Humana and get a million seniors to go online who are not currently on the on the internet. That's our goal.
I think that's going to offer profound opportunities, not just for ASA as a partner of yours, but also for ASA members who candidly, for a variety of perhaps funding reasons or lack of local capacity, just couldn't pivot fast enough to be able to provide their services digitally. And so I think what you're doing and what Humana is doing is just fantastic.
But I want to turn a little bit to something that a lot of our foundation partners and friends often ask of us and of our members. And that is on impact, on data, on accountability. You touched a little bit about on this already, but I'm wondering, could you talk a little bit more about how you make the case. How you prove that bridging the digital divide is is something that out funding partners should invest in?
Absolutely. I go back to the early days of OATS when I think about this, and I remember going to meet with funders, and they would say things like, "Oh, yeah, we don't really fund websites. You know, we don't do that." And I was trying to explain, we're not building a website, we're building a social change model. And they'd say, "We only do direct services." We'd say "Actually I have 15 seniors that sitting in my space right now I could talk to you about."
But people have a hard time understanding what to do with this technology framework, when it came to evaluating social impact investments. I used to teach a course on social entrepreneurship and philanthropy years ago, and we spent a lot of time looking at how funders think about this sort of thing. And what the good news is, is that what funders want, really is what we really should be doing anyways, which is accountability. They want us all to have strong mechanisms for knowing that we're making a difference. And it doesn't mean that you have to set up a wholeoffice full of PhD bean counters to evaluate every single moment of every single program where you're constantly surveying everybody. But it does mean that you need to get out there and ask questions to measure and create some metrics, operationalize your mission and your goals and objectives so that there's some way that you can tell for yourself first, whether or not you're making a difference.
I know every ASA member is already thinking about that stuff. When you do it through a digital format, you've got a lot of tools that are available for online surveys for managing data collection and management through things like Qualtrics, which gives you a chance to do some somewhat more sophisticated statistical work. But the critical piece is to gather the data in the first place. And if you've got it, and you've kept it, and you have it in some kind of organized format, people have unique identifiers that are their name, you know, that's obviously protected for privacy. But then you can sit down and work with researchers and say, "What's the before and after change?"
We've been working on that for years at OATS. I have a PhD, and it's mostly just evidence that I was able to go to school for 12 years, but the value of it in a way allows you to have a certain fluency working with data. And we brought in some researchers from Cornell and from various institutions that have helped us do before and after testing people in our courses. So for people who go through an OATS class now, if it's meant to be a senior financial management class, we'll ask them about 25 or 30 questions before they start that class, about their financial situation. Not really about their opinions, but things like did you spend more money last month than you took in and, Do you have a bank account? And do you understand how to protect yourself from online fraud? And then we'll do our program with them for 10 weeks and then at the end of the program, we'll ask them the same exact questions. And that way you can see like, Where's your withholding Delta? Where's your change from the before and after? And what's the impact when we talk to finance?
So tell me, you're doing a lot of work, obviously on equity and justice. And you've spoken a lot about how you want to change the way we age. And I want to sort of expand on that a little bit. What do you mean by that? And what do you hope to accomplish?
The idea of changing the way that we age at OATS is central to our mission. Of course, it is our mission. Our mission is to harness technology to change the way we age. But it's more than just a slogan for us. It's really what inspires us and gives us a lot of passion. We think of ourselves, in a way, as design thinkers coming at aging. Too often when people think about aging, we all know the stereotypes, they conflate or mix together the idea of aging and sickness, or aging and declining or aging and frailty. And while certainly many people are frail, and many people need care, we all need care through different points in our lives. And it's not what aging is about. And it doesn't have to be what aging is about. We have failed to take advantage of what is possible in our later times in our lives. Partly because we're just afraid of grappling with some of the negative experiences of getting older and sometimes getting frail and also our fear of death, which is very real to people. But what's being missed is that, for many people, their older years, their best years. They are the years when they're most productive, when they're done serving others in a panic and trying to pay the rent or get solvent and suddenly they're in a place in their lives where they could take a deep breath and they can do something that's a lifelong passion for them. They can get back to their community, they can heal our country, which is so needed right now, they can take care of others. And when we create programs for older people that fail to meet them at eye level with these kinds of opportunities and these kinds of missions that they have, then we're doing everybody a disservice.
So what we're after we say change the way we age is, we want to take technology, we want to work with older people to figure out what's possible. We don't know the answers. We don't know what's going to go in tomorrow's program. I had a meeting with my program staff today, we literally can't tell you what we're going to provide in the next quarter. Because we're still asking. I always say that we're competing with Apple, we're competing with Harvard, we're competing with the best experiences that people have out there for learning, for access to technology, but also for social change. We're competing with the greatest advocates for changing in our country's history. We want to be that good and we want older people to be partners with us. So we're trying to activate that stuff and unleash it. We can only do it with with organizations like the members of ASA and the people that we serve.
Tom, we're running out of time, and I just want to ask you one final question that I've asked all our guests on this second season here on equity and justice. And that is, why do you do it? Why do you get involved and continue to fight for this kind of social change, particularly in aging?
For me personally, it's about doing something I consider awesome. It's about doing something that feels meaningful and really fun and amazing. I'm not really trained as a social worker. I'm not a business person. When I was a kid, I was reading books about Martin Luther King, and I thought, "that guy's really cool. I want to try to do that kind of stuff." And it just seemed like a good way to spend our lives. There's that famous Mary Oliver line. She says, "What do you want to do with your one wild and precious life?" And to me, we only have one chance to do something that feels meaningful, that feels like it matches up to the gift of our time on earth. And for me that is trying to do social change and trying to do something that is brings together our democratic and civic values and it makes a differenc. It just seems really exciting and really creative and I sleep well at night when we have a good day.
Well thank you for the work that you do, your innovative work. You're really a trendsetter when it comes to training older adults on how to use technology and embrace it. So on behalf of our of our ASA membership, thank you very much for creating this resource and for deploying it across the country. And I suspect after this you may have some more places that might be calling. So thank you for joining me on this last episode of future proof Tom.
I'm really happy to be part of this. I'm so happy you guys are focusing on the equity and justice issues here. And I think ASA is going in some really great directions right now. We're super happy to collaborate. We're real passionate about the organization and and looking forward to doing more this year.
Thank you, Tom. And thank you for joining joining us on this episode of Future Proof. Coming up is the new season of Future Proof and we hope you visit our website to learn more about upcoming episodes. Thank you