Resources have been stretched thin during the COVID-19 pandemic. To save lives, the global community has been forced to make extreme short-term sacrifices: widespread closures, unprecedented unemployment, profound financial loss and physical distancing. What might be the psychological, emotional and physical toll as the population has grappled with living in isolation? Time will tell, but social isolation is an obvious outcome.
Prolonged loneliness brought on by social isolation is nothing new to a huge percentage of the population. Even before the pandemic, one in three Americans and 60 percent of older adults had already experienced the detrimental impact of loneliness. Clinical psychologist Onyedikachi Ekwerike expressed it most succinctly, stating bluntly, “We already had a pandemic before COVID-19.” Now more than ever it is critical to provide pathways for our most marginalized and vulnerable population members to remain socially engaged.
Lifelong Learning Reimagined—An Opportunity and Challenge
Lifelong learning is an important component to a physically, cognitively and socially healthy lifestyle. Research suggests that continuous learning provides numerous benefits for older adults with respect to cognitive functioning, health and well-being, civic participation, social inclusion and self-confidence. Defined here as organized learning opportunities for older adults, lifelong learning takes many forms, including educational travel programs as well as education in an academic setting or a cultural center. Traditionally, many lifelong learning providers offered educational opportunities in an in-person format, but with the pandemic, most providers have been forced to rethink delivery modes.
Lifelong Learning institutes (LLI) have had to change programs and delivery modes. Some of the smaller LLIs could not transition to online learning (for instance, due to lack of resources to purchase video presentation technologies) and postponed courses. Others have adapted to the new situation by moving courses online or providing members with recorded lectures.
Some LLIs found creative ways to combat social isolation. For example, OLLI at Arizona State University invented a continuous Zoom “Party Line,” in which OLLI members can meet each other virtually around the clock.
The Center for Life and Learning (CLL) at Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church offers courses and lectures for older adults in the arts, humanities, fitness and health. CLL also has migrated to online learning, but because a significant number of its members do not use the Internet, these classes are out of reach for them. CLL is tracking attendance more rigorously to determine which of its community members have slipped through the digital cracks. But there is no easy solution for rectifying the inequity.
Not all organizations had programming amenable to moving online. Road Scholar, for example, each year offers more than 5,000 educational travel opportunities and learning adventures for mature adults. Due to the pandemic, the organization has temporarily been forced to suspend its educational travel programs. Nevertheless, to keep the community engaged and to provide learning resources during shelter-in-place orders, Road Scholar offers a series of free and live interactive online lectures with instructors from around the world. Lectures are recorded and published online so that people who couldn’t tune into the live event can watch later.
Benefits and Shortcomings of Online Learning
The benefit of online learning is that it is easily accessible for digitally connected homebound elders and those living in remote places. It provides the ability to broaden one’s personal perspective by learning from instructors across the globe and exploring new technical skills, which also can be applied in other contexts, such as bringing family together, virtually. Asynchronous forms of instruction that don’t occur in real time allow the learner to structure their learning schedule in a way that’s works for them.
But online learning has its shortcomings. For example, video conferencing tools require tech-savviness from participants and instructors. They are vulnerable to digital fraud, unwanted disruption, and often require updates, which can be deterrents for less tech-savvy individuals. Furthermore, many online programs that were developed in haste during the pandemic do not include accessibility options, such as captions or audio description, which puts individuals with hearing or vision loss at a disadvantage.
Also, virtual classrooms can make learning less personal due to fewer opportunities for direct interaction with the instructor and classmates. Research generally indicates that lifelong learners prefer in-person over online learning, and that discussions with others as well as an intimate learning atmosphere are key components of a positive learning experience for older adults.
The Digital Divide
Most significantly, online learning disproportionately disadvantages those who do not have access to the required technology. Generally, Internet usage among older adults has increased, yet still only 28 percent of Americans ages 80 and older report having home broadband, according to 2017 Pew Research Center data. In addition to age, the data reveal substantial inequities in digital access based on socioeconomic status, educational attainment, disability and racial and ethnic identity.
Public libraries play an important role to enable access to digital resources, in particular for African Americans (42 percent of African American library users say they use their libraries’ computers and Internet connections). The closure of public libraries during the pandemic, however, further marginalizes this segment of the population.
Telephone-based lifelong learning services can be an effective way to overcome the digital divide. Mather’s Telephone Topics and Covia’s Well Connected are phone- and video-based social connection and learning resources for older adults. While both services accommodate digital connectivity, many participants continue to join by phone. Providing an extra level of accessibility, Covia’s conferencing system can automatically call and connect registered participants. While many of the discussions and lectures offered by both services are perfectly suited to an audio-only experience, some topics, such as the visual arts, rely on the distribution of course packets to telephone participants in advance. The situation during the height of the pandemic compelled Mather to suspend mailings and, to maintain equitable access for their telephone participants, temporarily halt all visuals for Telephone Topics. This turn of events, however, has required little adaptation on the part of presenters, who are already accustomed to describing visuals, because both Telephone Topics and Well Connected attract many older adults who are blind or have low vision.
Disability and Alzheimer’s Disease
For people living with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, the widespread distancing measures as a result of COVID-19 are in many cases proving nothing short of catastrophic. The closure of adult day centers and challenging conditions in memory care units deprive this highly vulnerable population of vital socialization and cognitive stimulation, which can lead to a drastic progression of symptoms.
Creative engagement and arts-based programs can have a demonstrable positive impact on the well-being of those living with Alzheimer’s and dementia. In response to the crisis, some community arts organizations are leveraging the power of art in creative ways. New York’s Arts & Minds activates the city’s museums through creative gallery conversations and studio workshops for people with dementia. With the closure of museums during the pandemic, Arts & Minds quickly pivoted to hosting its programs online using video-conferencing technology.
Despite technological and pedagogical learning curves, Arts & Minds is successfully running online programs five times per week in English and in Spanish. Despite the exceptions, the explosion of online learning and cultural engagement in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic has strongly privileged technologically-able, English-fluent, cognitively-typical, able-bodied, and literate individuals. Rather than trying to take older adults online, some arts organizations are developing novel offline solutions to continue their valuable missions. La BROCHA offers supportive, social, and expressive art-making workshops to Spanish-speaking members of Chicago’s older Latinx community, especially those with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or dementia. To address the needs and desires of their community, La BROCHA developed a bilingual coloring book, which, along with coloring pencils, they have mailed to older adults in Chicago who were previously served by La BROCHA and continue to send, upon request, to those in need.
Whenever society might settle on its new normal, it is not unreasonable to imagine that some organizations will have evolved a hybridized approach of lifelong learning. In large part, though, the direction of lifelong learning providers will be motivated by audience demand. The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing many older adults to adopt technology not only for their own entertainment, social connectivity and daily well-being, but for telehealth and workforce relevance. As consumers become comfortable with video-conferencing and virtual classrooms, there may be an uptick in demand for online learning.
But systemic inequities in access to the digital realm will remain. It is the responsibility of our nation’s lifelong learning providers to ensure equitable access to the resources they provide. This requires the difficult work of prioritizing, as well as partnering with marginalized populations, such as older people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals and people with disabilities.
Sandra von Doetinchem, MEd (Dipl. Päd), is a program specialist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Lucas Livingston, MA, has worked for 20 years in arts, aging and accessibility at the Art Institute of Chicago.