While every United Way in Tennessee has a long history of supporting and delivering services to support older Tennesseans, during the pandemic, with Tennesseans isolated at home, online access for this population specifically became more important than ever. UWTN responded by expanding internet access, providing hot spots, and distributing devices and online platform licenses for telemedicine and case management services. We also increased our digital literacy trainings for many vulnerable populations, including older Tennesseans. United for Digital Access was developed to leverage our existing programs, partnerships, and expertise to increase access to social and health supports specifically for older people through digital literacy and access to devices. Working with our many partners, this initiative helps older Tennesseans use technology to reduce their social isolation and improve their health and well-being. It includes providing digital learning and technical support resources, as well as internet-ready devices, and a special engagement of youth and other topic experts as volunteer technology mentors.
In 2024, this work will include three summits: one for older Tennesseans by bankers on protections to avoid financial abuse; a second for youth-serving programs on engaging students in service to support digital literacy; and a third for organizations serving older Tennesseans to share best practices and local challenges in order to replicate effective strategies and continue to fill service gaps.
We are proud of our work to-date, since the launch of United for Digital Access in August of 2022. Since inception, this initiative has served 1866 people over 60. A total of 33 youth have already been engaged to serve as mentors providing more than 260 hours of support, and 8 bankers have provided more than 20 hours of training on financial cyber-safety. More than 500 accessed Tennessee Benefit Kitchen to screen and apply for eligible benefits and tax credits during our first year of operation, as well, and all served were educated about 211 as a resource via phone or internet for any social, health or human service needs. In satisfaction surveys, more than 92% of older Tennesseans served reported increased digital literacy skills and confidence, expanded knowledge of internet safety and cyber security, and greater ability to utilize devices and internet platforms to connect with family and friends.
United for Digital Access is successful because it enables local United Ways to customize efforts based on the population’s needs and service gaps in those communities. During our first year of operation, 7 local United Ways served older Tennesseans in 16 counties. Below are profiles spotlighting some of this work:
- United Way of West Tennessee provided 180 iPad kiosks in 19 senior centers, 19 libraries with senior programming, and a handful of retirement homes across their region. These had pre-loaded information from 211 and Tennessee Benefit Kitchen, so participants could easily find information on food, housing, health and mental health services, utility assistance, affordable internet, and beyond. They trained staff at each facility so they could teach older Tennesseans how to utilize the kiosks. They note that their efforts were a success because so many older people live in rural areas with limited services and do not have the funds to purchase devices or access the internet. These kiosks will continue to serve hundreds of people each year going forward.
- United Way of the Mid-South first convened local Aging Commission leaders to identify needs and gaps, and their staff as well as Meritan provided training classes. They were pleased to reach older citizens in all their counties, and especially in Lauderdale County where there were no services that existed prior. They believe their participants are confident and will use technology more to connect with family and friends and to access health and human services.
- United Way of Hawkins County partnered with local food pantries and senior residences to target older Tennesseans who are home bound, delivering devices and instructions to ensure easy access, cyber security, and reduced isolation.
- United Way of Bristol provided training sessions to older Tennesseans and also partnered with their local school system to support and train grandparents raising grandchildren.
- United Way of Greater Kingsport collaborated with community partners to offer monthly learning opportunities for older Tennesseans. In addition to program providers, they partnered with two low-income housing providers and one library to improve offerings for residents and patrons by equipping each of them with a smart TV and computer. They also utilized youth from the local Boys and Girls Clubs to mentor and train some participants, and they partnered with Kingsport City Schools to support and train grandparents raising grandchildren.
- United Way of the Clinch Powell Valley provided devices for low-income people 60 and older, as well as training on device use, financial safety, social media, avoiding scammers and viruses, troubleshooting, and continued use. They also engaged Oak Ridge Youth Leadership teen volunteers to support and mentor participants. The latter was especially wonderful, as older participants loved the interaction, and youth developed confidence and a sense of civic responsibility.
- United Way of Rhea County supported partners delivering training in their community, providing a new projector, projector screen, advertising for classes in local publications, graduation ceremonies (diplomas and food), and supplies (notepads, folders, copies). Training topics included use of Google apps, cybersecurity, health and financial tools, and continuing education, with all participants receiving a Chromebook once the 15-hour course was complete.
We are grateful to West End Home Foundation, Spectrum and Verizon for the support of United for Digital Access, and we look forward to expanding service and geographic service coverage statewide!