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RU-N Office of University-Community Partnerships, Community Allies Help Senior Citizens Mitigate Digital Divide

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Mildred English, bottom right corner, is a retired vice principal who has served on the Advocates for Healthy Living Initiative Advisory Board for the past 10 years.

The Advocates for Healthy Living Initiative (AHLI), Rutgers University–Newark’s Office of University-Community Partnerships (OUCP), and several community partners have joined forces to help close the digital divide that persists among Greater Newark senior citizens. Through the Senior Connect initiative, AHLI and its collaborators have procured 205 Fire 7 tablets that will be donated to senior citizens who participate in AHLI programs. An additional 25 Fire 7 tablets will be given to Rutgers-Newark student coaches as well as staff of Rutgers-Newark’s Office of Information and Technology-Newark Computing Services (OIT) to provide instruction and supportive services to the senior citizens.

In addition to AHLI and OUCP, partners supporting the project include Rutgers-Newark’s Office of the Chancellor, School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA), and OIT.  Tablets are being donated by each of the Rotary Clubs of Newark, Roselle-Roselle Park (Hillside), and East Orange; and Amazon.com, Inc. The benefactors will symbolically present the devices during the National Minority Health Month virtual conference series hosted by Rutgers-Newark and AHLI on Friday, April 16, and Friday, April 30.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the digital divide among senior citizens. In July 2020, AHLI, OUCP, SPAA, and many other community organizations launched “Living Your Best Life Virtually” to keep vulnerable seniors active, involved, and connected to people during the pandemic. The five-week series of virtual sessions encouraged elder adults to focus on their health and wellness and engage with their peers while observing social distancing guidelines and stay-home orders. It also confirmed that elderly adults, especially those who lived alone in urban areas, lagged behind the rest of the population in their ability to access the Internet as a resource to support healthy living during COVID. 

“Physical separation from family and friends has caused seasoned citizens to become more dependent on the Internet to help sustain physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing during the pandemic,” stated Mildred English, a retired vice principal who has served on the AHLI Advisory Board for the past 10 years. “Personally, the Internet has been a lifeline in so many ways and has helped me to remain connected to the outside world,” she added.

“The adverse effects of social isolation among seniors are well-documented in a study by the AARP Public Policy Institute, Stanford University, and Harvard University,” said Diane Hill, assistant chancellor for university-community partnerships at Rutgers-Newark. “The use of digital technology has proven to be a useful tool for bridging the gap, however, many lack access to user-friendly devices, technical assistance, and Internet access.”

Under the Senior Connect initiative, the donated tablets come preinstalled with software and allow individuals to participate in virtual events, receive telemedicine services, and make appointments for other essential services – all within the comfort of their own homes. To reduce the anxiety of those who may not be technologically savvy, OUCP’s trained student workers also provide group or one-on-one support to any senior who needs assistance.

“The importance of connectivity has been underscored by the pandemic and those at the Senior Connect initiative are dedicated to ensuring our seniors stay connected while socially distant,” said Jillian Irvin, Amazon’s senior manager of public policy. “Amazon is committed to bridging the digital divide and making sure everyone in our community, especially the most vulnerable, have access to technology. We will continue working toward that goal with our local partners in Newark.”

“It is good to know that our seniors will be able to use their Fire 7 tablets to receive updates or participate in our health and wellness programs, which are patterned after ‘Living Your Best Life Virtually,’” Hill declared.

“Living Your Best Life Virtually” sessions were held three days a week: Meditation, Motivation and Music Mondays; Wellness Workshop Wednesdays; and Fun, Fitness, and Food Fridays. Monday featured guided meditation, motivation, and short inspirational talks plus musical entertainment. Wednesday workshops showcased renowned physicians, researchers, scholars, and health care and aging services experts who provided timely information on healthy aging, advice on responding to COVID-19, and details about available resources and services. Friday treated participants to two, back-to-back, midday exercise programs – stretching and chair exercises and Zumba – immediately followed by tutorials on healthy food selection, gardening, and cooking demonstrations. With support from the American Heart Association, Rutgers Center for Global Health, and Rutgers-Newark’s Office of the Chancellor, the Sit and Fit and Zumba classes were extended and continue to remain open to the public. Senior citizens interested in registering for Sit and Fit classes can click here. To register for Zumba, click here.

Community partners that helped to launch “Living Your Best Life Virtually” included: American Heart Association; CareSparc Consulting Inc.; City of Newark-Recreation, Cultural Affairs and Senior Services; East Orange Senior Services; Essex County Division of Senior Services; Greater Newark Conservancy; Greater Newark Healthcare Coalition; Hillside Senior Services; Mental Health Association in New Jersey; New Community Corporation; New Hope Baptist Church; North Jersey Black Clergy; Rotary Club of Newark; Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey; Rutgers African-American Alumni Alliance; Rutgers Global Health Institute; Rutgers Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research; Rutgers–Newark Gourmet Dining; Rutgers, New Jersey Medical School; Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration; ScreenNJ; The Positive Community Magazine; University Hospital; Urban Healthcare Initiative Program; West Ward Community Coalition; Woman in Media-Newark; and Zonta Club of Essex County.

Sponsors of the National Minority Health Month conference series include American Heart Association; City of Newark-Recreation, Cultural Affairs and Senior Services; East Orange Senior Services; Essex County Division of Senior Services; Greater Newark Healthcare Coalition; Hillside Senior Services; Mental Health Association in New Jersey; New Community Corporation; New Hope Baptist Church; North Jersey Black Clergy; Rotary Clubs of Newark, Roselle-Roselle Park (Hillside), and East Orange; Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey; Rutgers Global Health Institute; Rutgers New Jersey Medical School; Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration; Rutgers University Police Department; ScreenNJ; Positive Community Magazine; University Hospital; Urban Healthcare Initiative Program; and West Ward Community Coalition. To register for the National Minority Health Month conference series, click on the desired event below:

About AHLI

AHLI is a volunteer-driven organization that provides elders with tools and information to live healthier lives. Its mission is to reduce health disparities, promote health equity, and improve the quality of life among urban seniors through transdisciplinary education, targeted intervention, base building, and community-based partnerships and collaborations. AHLI envisions that all seniors thrive in an environment supported by health advocates and community partners working to increase health literacy, improve healthy living practices, and reduce health disparities, morbidity, and mortality from preventable causes.

About OUCP

OUCP oversees programs and facilitates initiatives that create and strengthen bridges between Rutgers-Newark and the Greater Newark community. OUCP brokers partnerships that help faculty, staff, and students to plan and implement community-based research initiatives. It also helps to connect faculty and students with service opportunities provided by organizations in the Greater Newark community. To learn more about OUCP, visit https://oucp.newark.rutgers.edu/.