By Caroline Lanni
FRAMINGHAM – Over the last 13 months, many individuals have using technology to stay connected with family and friends, during this coronavirus pandemic.
But a year into the pandemic, and some seniors are frustration with technology or lack the understanding of technology to stay connected with loved ones, and avoid isolation and loneliness.
Seeking a solution to technological roadblocks, the Callahan Center, the Framingham Council on Aging, and the City of Framingham applied for and received grants to connect Framingham senior citizens with technology.
Starting this month, senior citizens, age 60 and older, can borrow Chromebooks for 12 months to use in the safety of their homes, so they will not feel so alone anymore.
City of Framingham Director of Elder Services at the Callahan Center Grace O’Donnell said, “When we realized last April that the shutdown would be lasting for more than a month, we realized that although many of our participants were making use of Zoom programs, many others in this age group don’t have a computer or can’t afford Internet access.”
O’Donnell said they were, “eager to find a way to connect other seniors to technology” since Zoom was becoming so much more popular, and more people attended their sessions on it at the Center.
The distribution of the Chromebooks is beginning this month, one year after the Callahan Center closed to seniors.
The Callahan Center has yet to-open in 2021, too.
“The Council on Aging’s Subcommittee on the Impact of COVID-19 also revealed that people needed training in this area and access to the Internet. Our Friends of Callahan group were also eager to help with this effort,” O’Donnell added.
The Chair of the COVID-19 Impact Committee and Clerk for the Framingham Council on Aging Subcommittee, Audrey Hall said, “The Council on Aging’s COVID-19 Impact Committee gathered input from Framingham’s senior population last June during a virtual hearing and then from a survey. The committee compiled the data and submitted a report to the Council on Aging, the Mayor, and the City Council which included recommendations to help Seniors who are dealing with issues of isolation.”
“One of the committee’s recommendations was to improve access to broadband, Wi-Fi, and electronic devices for Seniors. The Chromebook initiative will help many seniors feel more connected to friends, family, medical professionals, entertainment, and information. We are hopeful to see it expand and continue long-term,” said Hall.
Volunteer Outreach Coordinator at the Callahan Center Sam Swisher, who has been working at the Center for 10 years said, “I would credit our current Director of Elder Services Grace O’Donnell with the formulation of the idea, and she was the one who put together the grant request.”
Swisher said right now we are in a public health concern and we should be focusing on giving people a way to connect with their family and friends online, while staying safe.
Swisher added, “They are trying to acquire a number of Chromebooks to distribute to older residents [Framingham] who are not at this time connected to the Internet and don’t have devices to allow them to do that.”
He said, “A number of people” in the Framingham population do not have technological devices and are not connected to the internet and “the Chromebook represents a chance for us to give them some instruction and to try and give them a means to connect with family, friends, and our programs.
“It’s a measure I guess you can say to better connect people and maybe to help combat some of the isolation that people have experienced for such a long time with the pandemic,” Swisher said.
Framingham has acquired 300 Chromebooks so far, said Swisher.
The Center can also provide free data plans through Residential Communications Network [RCN] and Comcast for those eligible in Framingham, according to their flyer.
Swisher said, “We have only begun the effort to distribute over the last week and a half,” and they have been making contacts with prospects of those who have reached out to them and they will be finalizing those interested soon.
“We don’t as yet have anybody formally enrolled, – but hopefully that will be changing in the next couple of weeks,” said Swisher.
Swisher said right now they are “piecing together with what they need.”
O’Donnell said, “We have not given out any of the Chromebooks, yet. We are finalizing the agreements with the data providers and preparing the intake process.”
“Sam Swisher will be involved with the intake process. He is a longtime employee of Framingham and is well-known in the community as a convener of volunteers. He and Ralph Dunlea, our Computer Center Coordinator have recruited and trained several volunteers that we expect will be able to train people how to use their devices via Zoom and – or phone connections,” O’Donnell said.
Swisher and Dunlea are installing the Chromebooks to have Zoom and other software’s available for the seniors to use at their homes.
Swisher said that Dunlea is a “real gold mind in the industry,” and he is “our go to guy” in the Center for assistance in technology.
“We are embarking on a campaign for those over 60 in our population, specifically those who are not currently on the internet to apply to us, and we would get them a device and offer training in a remote way,” said Swisher.
He said they have recruited people as “tutors” to help assist the seniors on how to work Zoom and are technological savvy to help.
The concept, according to Swisher for this initiative is to “be in touch with family and friends and the community at large.”
The funding for the Chromebooks and the data plans for the technology came from two grants, including one from the MetroWest Health Foundation, based in Framingham.
Director of the MetroWest Health Foundation Martin Cohen said, “The Foundation has long been concerned about social isolation among older adults as a health issue. When COVID-19 restrictions forced area senior centers to close, this only added to our concern. By making remote programming available to seniors through the use of tablets, we are hoping we can engage them in activities and reduce their isolation.
“In late summer (2020), we reached out to area senior centers offering funding for tablets and other aspects of remote programming. Framingham’s Callahan Center was quick to respond with a proposal that our Framingham Grants Panel eagerly endorsed with a grant of $25,000,” Cohen said.
The staff at the Callahan Center have done “a great job” helping older adults, and “taking advantage of this programming,” said Cohen.
O’Donnell said, “We know that MetroWest Health Foundation is very responsive to health issues of the community and are aware of the social isolation being experienced. When they announced, in the Fall, that they had funding to help organizations address the issue of social isolation, especially for people disproportionately affected by COVID-19, people in black and brown populations, and those whose preferred language is other than English, we applied for the funds. We sought a way to purchase some Chromebooks and cover the costs of the data plans,” said O’Donnell.
The City of Framingham had access to The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act [CARES Act] funds for COVID-19 related issues and the Callahan Center used those funds to purchase the Chromebooks to “low-income seniors for free up to 12 months,” added O’Donnell.
“That left more of the funding from [MWHF] to go towards the data plans. Also, around this time it was announced that Community Development Block Grant [CDBG] funding could be applied for to address programs for people 62 years old and older,” said O’Donnell. “We had not yet heard if the [MWHF] funds would be approved, so we also applied for funding from [CDBG] for data plans. All together we hope to serve at least 300 people, over the age of 60 with a Chromebook to borrow for free up to 12 months and data plans, whose monthly costs will be covered by one of the two grants.”
“We are beginning to publicize the concept of the program and – were getting our word out to a number of the organizations in the community that offer a range of services to people, were in touch with those organizations that give housing to people – the housing authority and a number of other housing complexes to people,” said Swisher, last week to SOURCE.
The Center is trying to reach out to people of other languages like Spanish and Portuguese as well, he added.
Swisher said the program is, “Targeting and making a priority of getting the program for people who are in a state of ‘financial need’ – people who are in compliance with many of the assistance programs in the community.”
They are in touch with agencies such as, fuel assistance, nutrition programs, and several other programs designed for people who have needs for services, Swisher said.
“It [the program] is just going to be for Framingham residents, and you would need to be a resident of Framingham and housed in Framingham” to participate in the program. He said they will be a delivery of Chromebooks to some people and a safe pick-up process at the Callahan Center, “whatever works best for the people,” he said.
“We can make arrangements for people to come by for an arranged period of time and pick up the devices from us here at the Callahan Center, in a safe drive by way,” he added.
Swisher said the goal of this program and initiative is to, “Communicate with their family – with family members who residence elsewhere and with whom perhaps these people would have challenges to maintain connection with safely at this point.”
He said, some residents are already asking him questions about borrowing the Chromebooks for a longer period than 12 months, and he told them they will see how it works at first and has not determined yet if this program will be longer than a year or not.
“We are going to be evaluating it at some points in the year and going to try and contact and follow up with each of the recipients to determine if the program has succeeded in making them feel and literally be more connected,” said Swisher.
He said they are trying to make it simple for people to qualify and document their involvement in the assistance programs to show that they need this kind of assistance.
A flyer was created about the program. “We will be preparing a Spanish and Portuguese language flyer as well soon,” said Swisher.
Framingham District 4 City Councilor, Mike Cannon said, “The entire staff of the Callahan Center, along with countless volunteers and supporters are dedicated to providing our growing senior community with whatever resources necessary to thrive in these unusual times.”
Councilor Cannon said it is “maddening to me that a full year after the idea of providing technology tools to our older adults was raised, hundreds of Chromebooks have still yet to be distributed to seniors in Framingham – truly maddening. This is not the Callahan Center’s fault – I know their leadership is skilled at overcoming obstacles, and they are doing everything they can.”
Councilor Cannon said “as I learn about the details behind these delays, they seem to be issues which could be easily resolved by the Mayor stepping up and getting involved. These delays should not be acceptable to her. I continue to urge the Mayor and the Chief Operating Officer [COO] to regularly attend and actively participate in Council on Aging meetings, as there are so many opportunities for us to do more for our seniors. We have an outstanding team at the Callahan Center, and we need to do more to support them and our growing community of older adults.”
Swisher said depending on the need later for this program, they would be looking for volunteers who are willing to coach, train, and be in contact with people who need assistance.
The volunteers can show individuals how to use Zoom and other software’s on the Chromebooks. he said.
“We could always benefit from more people in the community that might have an interest in helping out,” said Swisher.
Swisher hopes to match volunteers with recipients that could help with certain expertise the volunteers have to assist them.
O’Donnell said, “We are happy to enlist more volunteers who are familiar with these devices and patient in training people. We are especially interested in recruiting people who have different language capacities so we can reach those especially impacted by COVID-19.”
“In addition to giving people another way to connect with friends and family, we are hopeful that people’s experience with this will relieve some of the hesitation or apprehension about technology and open new forms of communication for them. More and more businesses and programs are minimizing the person to person and even phone contact. We don’t want this population to be left out of the picture,” O’Donnell added.
Social isolation is a major issue for senior citizens still during this pandemic.
Director of Communications at American Association of Retired Persons [AARP] of Massachusetts, Cynthia [Cindy] Campbell said, seniors can also use their Friendly Voice Call Center, “as a resource, to combat social isolation.
“The [AARP] Friendly Voice Call Center connects [AARP] volunteers with people who may be experiencing social isolation and loneliness – particularly during this time of social distancing. Visit – https://aarpcommunityconnections.org/friendly-voices/,” said Campbell.
The Friendly Voice Call Center Phone Number is 1-888-281-0145 [toll-free] and in Spanish at 1-888-497-4108 [toll-free.]
If individuals would like to volunteer for the Chromebook Initiative, contact Sam Swisher by email, firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone, 508-532-5980 to help with the program.
Caroline Lanni is a 2021 spring SOURCE intern. Lanni is a senior communications major with a minor in journalism at Framingham State University. She wants to pursue a media career in broadcast journalism. She is a member of the dance team at Framingham State.