Tom is an expert on technology and aging, and has been with OATS since he founded it back in 2004, nearly 19 years ago.
OATS, in association with AARP, developed a 26-week program to assist older adults who struggle with social isolation. OATS aims to better connect the 20 percent of older Americans who struggle with social isolation by teaching them how to leverage technological resources at their disposal.
In addition to his work with OATS, Tom has also worked as an instructor at his alma mater, Columbia University.
Sarah Lai Stirland: Good afternoon everyone. This is, feedback, but this is Sarah Lai Stirland. I go by Sarah. I'm the digital community director here at Broadband.Money, and I'm really happy to be here with Thomas Kamber or Tom Kamber, the founder and Executive Director of the Older Adults Technology Services, otherwise known as OATS in New York City. This subject of older adults and technology is really interesting to me personally because I've been writing about it and I have two parents who are on the opposite ends of the spectrum. One is a technophiles and the other one is a technical. So it's been an interesting time.
Sarah: So Tom founded OATS 14, sorry, 17 years ago in 2004 in Bedford-Stuyvesant at a small, it sounds like it was a room somewhere with a bunch of older adults. And ever since then, he's grown the organization, become a national organization, and it's now affiliated with the AARP and it's nationwide. And you've put on the, Tom, I, I'm not gonna go on forever. So why don't you explain, [laughter], in your own words what OATS aims to do.
Tom Kamber: I'm happy to do that. And first of all, thank you for doing this and having us on. I'm a big fan of Broadband.Money and have learned a lot from you and other folks in this network for years as, I'm doing this work kind of as a grassroots practitioner and activist, but it works in the context of much bigger dialogues about technology and telecoms and how we're all connecting to each other and building a healthy system. And so I wanna thank people for all of that you've done to help me be able to be here to talk about this. As you mentioned, we started OATS in 2004. I think we're in year 18. I not very good at math here, but I think that's where we are. And it was in a small room. It was in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and I had been working in housing for about 10 years as a nonprofit housing activist, and got excited about working with older adults in tech just from a volunteer project. I got roped in to, and after doing it for a while, realized it was making a difference and I needed a place to just practice on some ideas and see if it was what might work.
Tom: And called a low-income housing group up in, out in Bedford-Stuyvesant. And for anybody that's been working in housing, I know many of us have done something with the low-income housing world. Many of those buildings are almost entirely run by tenant associations for people that are in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. And this place was no exception, it was the Betty Shabazz Complex on Gates Avenue. And I went in and said, "What are you doing with technology here?" And they were running a very large operation that involved dealing with telecoms companies and at the time cable systems in the building, but there wasn't any training or social side to the supporting older people to get online. And they were finding that the younger people in the building were gobbling up tech resources and getting involved in doing things.
Tom: But the seniors were kind of on the sidelines and we started looking at different programs and what was going on. And most of the trainings that were created at that time were really, or they had been written by computer scientists and by engineers. And I know I'm in the wrong place to talk smack about engineers, but it was interesting because a lot of the content focused on the device, so the first hour or two of the training was learning the parts of the computer and what does CPU stand for and what is an XLS file and how do you resize your desktop icons? And this is a group of people that had never been on the internet and didn't have email and weren't sure how to, scan a browser window. And so we worked at what today would be called co-design. I remember Charlotte Rogers and, older African-American community activist who's gotta be in her 70s at the time. And she was sitting there saying, we wanna know about internet and email, get that into the first class.
Tom: Figure like, help us. We wanna drive the car. We don't wanna get under the hood and rebuild the engine. And so we built this curriculum together with the older adults in the building that extended the training out to 10 weeks that really zeroed in on age relevant content methodology. And then also began to take it into account where people wanted to go once they were learning the tech. Because older adults have somewhat different life patterns. And if you do the training a certain way as people emerge from a class, they don't just like stop with the technology, but they then start, starting a business. They start exercising more. They start rebuilding our social networks that they're looking to do. And so it kinda took off from there. And today we're an affiliate of AARP, as you mentioned, which is an absolute godsend. I'm happy to talk about that in more detail. We're in, we have operations in 49 states in one shape, in one way, shape, or form.
Sarah: What's the one state that you're not in?
Tom: Gosh, I think it's one of the mountain states up in the north.
Tom: But I'm gonna fix that. We're gonna get there. Somebody mentioned that...
Sarah: Alright, [laughter]
Tom: We'll find out if anybody's from OATS is on this. They should put it in the chat. But we've got a... And we're gonna work, 360,000 engagements with our online training just this year. So, we're getting to some real scale. We're showing some real results in the work that we're doing. So, I think if you were thinking about OATS, what I always say is that we're a social change organization that's working at the intersection of technology and aging. And then one other thing to mention is we run the Senior Planet Network, which is our flagship program. People often refer to us as Senior Planet, 'cause that's a lot of our client facing work. All right, I'll shut up. Ask me more questions.
Sarah: No, no, it's okay. It's Senior Planet's a website as well as physical, places people can go. Right?
Tom: Yeah. A sort of jokey way to think about it is that Senior Planet is the Ben and Jerry is to the OATS Unilever.
Tom: When we started doing the work, everything was OATS, OATS, OATS. But the seniors that were graduating our class, there's not a lot of senior friendly content on the internet, or if you're... If there is, you can't always find it. And so they were going to our site and they would come back and say, Yeah, I spent the afternoon on the OATS website. And I'd be, Well, that's a disaster. That's a... It's Brochureware that website's designed for funders and, big partners and government agencies, and it's not really meant to be a digital community for older users. So we redesigned that and rebuilt it, built a parallel site called Senior Planet. At the time we were inspired by Black Planet and some of the sites that were trying to create...
Sarah: Oh I remember that site. Yeah.
Tom: Hopefully competent, more authentic content on the web. And I thought Senior Planet was a great empowering name. I mean it's like the planet is yours, and we don't shy away from the word Senior. We think it can really mean something very positive. We're very positive about aging at OATS. So, we were excited about that phrase, that name. And then the website, when we opened our first center in 2013, if you do the math, that was almost 10 years after we started the organization, but we were always working partners, our partner sites. We start... We called the Site Senior Planet, because that was just, that became the brand. And then somebody came up with a tagline, which wasn't me, but it's brilliant "Aging with Attitude".
Tom: And that's on the wall there. People love that. They wear t-shirts that say Senior Planet Aging with Attitude. And that's become our kind of friendly, consumer focused brand. And it really enables us to kind of build, communications and visuals around that sense of empowering older adults and sharing and peer education and celebrating aging. Where the OATS background, the more corporate button-down site is, we're the ones who can manage a Federal, A-133 Audit if we're taking a 10 million grant. And we can make sure that we land the airplane on the runway at the right time and support all the partners and do all the work that we do.
Sarah: Right. So I just want to... I like the way you... OATS frames what you're working on. You have five impact areas, right?
Sarah: When it comes to helping seniors. Could you frame that for our viewers?
Tom: Absolutely. When we first started out, mission statement was kind of, I had never run a nonprofit before. And the Board, we worked out this mission statement, which was this long paragraph about participating with technology and using it for welfare and is... Independence and things. And we did a Board retreat about six or eight years after we got started and revisited all of that, how we were framing our... What today is typically referred to as a theory of change. And we realized that we were more... What we really were excited about was not really just the technology. If we stop... If you said, Tom Kamber or OATS are the people who taught a hundred thousand people to use Microsoft... I'm not sure I'm gonna be lying on my deathbed feeling incredibly proud of that.
Tom: It's their job to teach people to use their stuff, right? It... It's not necessarily the social aspiration that we all graduated from Wesleyan with. So, in what we came really a lodestar for us was this notion of aging and social change around aging. There's a... We're in the middle of a really radical revolution and longevity, which is only not front page news every day because it's happening rather slowly. But we've added more years to the human lifespan, in the last century than we added in all of human history before that. And it is radically changing how we're thinking about, life stages and lifespans. And how... Just questions we've front-loaded all of our education into the years from, seven until 22. But people are now working into their 70s and 80s, and there's no system of Pell Grants or going back to college or something that at age 55 or 60. We've just sort of let people dangle and so we're trying to figure out how to do... How to modernize aging and older adults are modernizing aging by living it and making it happen.
Tom: So we got excited about the work that we're doing as a kind of focal point around aging and tech. And we realized that the out... The things we want to be known for are age related outcomes, and that's what we wanna be held accountable to. So we reorganized all the OATS trainings and curriculum. Everything has a tech theme. There's gonna be something having to do with tech. It can be very tech focused like how do you use this Tablet? Or it can be light tech, where it's more, how do you do a Spotify song list while we're having you work out at the center? And the tech theme is more around supportive tech, but, the impact areas that we were able to identify were, they were... The criteria were it had to make a difference in aging and it had to be related to tech. And it had to be something where we could make a difference. So the obvious one was social engagement. That was vertical number one, where the vast majority of people that come through programs tell us that they wanna communicate with friends and family, make a difference that way. The other two big ones that come up all the time are health and financial security...
Tom: All of those are strongly mediated by technology skills and access, and we can make a difference. And they're very, very relevant to older people, and they are, in many ways ownable and distinctive as areas of practice within the world of gerontology. And then the last two things that we really zeroed in on we're civic engagement. I'm an advocate. I used to be a community organizer. And it's obvious to everyone that if we're gonna have a healthy civic society, that older adults need to be able to use these technologies tools effectively. They need to be able to manage them and manage the information that flows through them in common sense ways and make a difference in their communities and for themselves. And then the last area is what people ask for a lot, which is creativity.
Tom: People don't always appreciate the process of aging for a lot of people is often an unleashing of a torrent of creativity. And I've spent a lot of time with older adults, have been really lucky to just be immersed in centers and programs with people and the level of poetry writing stand-up comedy routine, developing visual art stuff, furniture making, interior design, older people are just pounding that stuff and they're really making a big difference with it. And the tech has become a critical tool for a lot of people in that. So we actually have a whole practice on creative expression.
Sarah: I know, I mean, I did a story for my local radio station during the pandemic, and I met this woman who was in her 80s, and she's a writer and she just published a new book and she holds monthly poetry readings every month online. It's awesome. She's just fantastic.
Tom: That's great.
Sarah: So you've got tons of interesting stories related to these areas. But since we are in the broadband grants community, I'd like to ask you about how you've been thinking about digital inclusion and engagement, and whether you've been involved in any level with New York State in applying for... In planning for digital equity grants or digital inclusion grants from the infrastructure bill.
Tom: I'm happy to talk about that. So we are in, I mean, most people know this, but I'll just restate it briefly. We're in a new era of digital inclusion funding from the Federal Government, and there have been really only two waves of this in the sort of post-internet age. One of them was in the '90s with the original technology opportunities program. And then the one that OATS really got launched with was the Broadband Technology Opportunities program, which was active around 2010. And today we've got this sort of third wave of it that's following COVID, where the Infrastructure Act is unleashed 65 billion dollars worth of broadband.money. And digital equity is really getting some serious funding as part of that. And the States are in the midst of planning out their digital equity programs. I think my camera just cut off. Hold on a second I reset it.
Sarah: Yeah. [laughter]
Tom: Reset that. I just saw it go black. It'll take a second, but I'll keep talking. But there's yeah, it's coming back on here. Let's see here. Come on. Camera. There. And so sometimes it overheats. So as part of the Digital Equity Act, I wanna get a new camera. [laughter] So there's a couple phases there. There's 2023 is going to be a time where the States are going to complete their plans for digital equity. OATS is not. This is getting a little crazy here. I'm gonna leave it off for just a second. I promise I'll start working in a moment. OATS is not applying for grants within the State plans right now. We've been working with AARP a bit as a partner, which is working with the State offices of broadband and also working at the Federal level.
Tom: Has been testifying and weighing into the Department of Commerce and issuing writing comments on different regulatory things and things. So I would defer to the AARP team on the policy stuff. I will say they've been super active in it and have consulted with those in terms of our learning, but then added in the AARP super strong capacity run advocacy. And we're really proud of the fact that ACP, the Affordable Connectivity Program has been funded and is succeeding at bringing a lot of lower income people into the internet age for the first time, and giving access to technology to people in ways that we've been calling for over a decade. And suddenly there's a will and there's funding for it, and there's national efforts. So I would say we are in some ways just starting a new era where when we go train older adults to get online and they come to me and say, well, that's great. Now how do I pay for my internet? I got something I can say [laughter] which is sign up for the Affordable Connectivity Program like tomorrow.
Sarah: Yeah. That's great.
Tom: So OATS is, we're gonna play a couple of roles here. The first, we are actively looking at this current an offer that's out from the FCC, that's the Affordable Connectivity Program Outreach grant which is a hundred million dollar allocation. The maximum grant is a million dollars. And it's helping, it's an enlisting partners... Applicants out there who will be signing up people for the Affordable Connectivity Program doing outreach and enrollment in lower income areas and with underserved populations. And we have a network of literally hundreds of sites that OATS connects with out in the communities around the country.
Tom: And we're planning to partner up with groups like the American Society on Aging. And we had a call with some housing organizations today that we're hoping to get enlisted there. Really to build a little bit of a practical capacity to centralize some of the strategic work and some of the background information and educational materials and access to training and things that OATS already has available, but then distribute into communities the capacity, a little bit of re-granting money to instigate a lot of those enrollments. So we're really trying to build a system around that. And it's still early days for this because nobody's quite done this in this way on this topic with that framework. So we're hopeful that we'll get a lot of movement on it and there's a lot of interest in it. And then the broader issue around digital equity.
Tom: I come from the school of thought that digital equity has kind of two levels. There's getting people engaged with the technology which is the prerequisite for everything. And there are fantastic organizations that are expert in this. OATS does it but we're part of a broader national network the National Digital Inclusion Alliance being the kind of the central actor in a lot of this. And they've been doing incredibly fantastic work getting people. They basically reinvented this field in the last 10 years. It's really been spectacular. So we're big supporters of the work that they're doing. And then there are what you might think of as culturally competent approaches to digital equity. I don't think it's a one-size-fits-all scenario. When you think about immigrant organizations you think about groups that work with ex-offenders or groups that work with youth, each of them has a really distinctive set of imperatives and parameters and opportunities that enable them to use digital equity activities if you wanna use a really broad term to achieve social outcomes. So it's meaningful that people have a computer. It's meaningful that people are logging on. But what then we really get or what is the compelling public interest in that activity?
Tom: Here it goes again, the compelling public interest is, I'm getting my room to cool down and the sun's on my camera. Anyways the compelling public interest around this for many people has to do with their organization's social impact. And we're looking at... On the digital equity front from a senior point of view, OATS has been working hard with a lot of older adults around the country to develop a kind of agenda around aging and digital equity. What are older people gonna do once we are online? And how can we orient those activities to make the most of it? So telemedicine is a really important topic for older adults. Security trust and fraud avoidance are really important topics for older adults.
Tom: Topics like social engagement building social networks and rebuilding social networks. For many older people your social networks naturally attenuate. You're not in the workforce anymore. You're not in college anymore for the most part or vice versa. You're definitely not in college and probably not in the workforce. And there's a need for finding ways to make new friends. And in fact we just issued a report showing that older people who take technology classes are more than twice as likely to make a new friend.
Tom: And so some of those digital equity programs are really making a difference with people profoundly in terms of the purposes that are related to aging. And that's where we're excited about the grants that are happening next year hoping that the states will kind of articulate a specific set of plans.
Sarah: I hope they're making a friend with the right people.
Tom: Well yeah there's always that, you can't always you can't tell them how to do it [laughter]
Tom: I don't need to prove my daughter's friends either but. You gotta work through it, it's part of the fun.
Sarah: Yeah. So what was I gonna say? So are you developing content around this?
Tom: Yes. So the plan is that the ARP teams are really working with the states around the digital equity program. So state operations can... In fact people can call starting next week they could call the ARP state office and say we're interested in getting your input into our state digital equity plan. And they can be sure that OATS is helping their state office. But really the ARP team has the expertise to put that content into the plan and help people make sure that it's age friendly. In fact I'm very proud of the fact that New York is the... I hate to be one of these patriotic New Yorkers but I have to... I'll do it here...
Sarah: It's okay. I'm not a New Yorker. So...
Tom: Are you a recovering New Yorker?
Tom: But New York State is the first state that was designated an age friendly state and ARP helped make that happen a few years back. And those kinds of commitments to organizing state planning and state program development with a lens that appreciates the older adult population what people need and also what seniors are contributing you don't always wanna think about older people as consumers of services without remembering that in many cases they're driving a lot of the value here. Older people are volunteering all over the state. They're volunteering all over the country. They are managing health challenges in their families. They're tutoring their grandkids and neighbors on educational topics. They're operating in agricultural areas helping lend expertise for farmers and things. There's just the veterans there's incredible power and energy coming out of that age group. And the digital inclusion programming really needs to line up. An age-friendly digital inclusion plan needs to ask how can we align what we're building here with where older people are gonna deploy these new resources?
Sarah: So just to summarize if there are any people in the audience or people watching this in the future, who are doing digital equity planning or inclusion they could reach out in the state offices or in local government. They could reach out to ARP and I think that's gonna help...
Tom: Yes they could... The state offices have been... We've been working with them a bit to put together plans for them. And if they're not sure how to reach somebody they can honestly just email me and I'll put them in touch with the right person there. We'll just...
Sarah: What's your email?
Tom: First initial last name TKAMER. Oh my god I can't believe I'm saying this but there's only 20 people there so only 5,000 people getting this. Tkamer@OATS.org. So T-K-A-M-E-R@O-A-T-S.org. And track me down on LinkedIn, and we'll make sure you get connected to the right people there.
Sarah: Okay. I have tons of questions for you but I'm going to go to our audience questions. But I've as I mentioned to you in a previous email I'd also like to mention to people in the audience I've worked with other organisations that Deal, that work with older adults. And I think there's one guy called Stephen Johnston, who I've worked with at Aging2.0, who you also know. I know Tom.
Tom: He was on my board.
Sarah: Oh, was he?
Tom: Yes, he was.
Sarah: He's a great guy.
Tom: But when he started Aging2, he came to talk to me about it and we became big fans of each other's work. And he joined the OATS board and was on our board helping us grow OATS years ago.
Sarah: That's so fantastic. But he had this great framing of seven challenges. Seven great challenges to aging. I just wanna quickly share them with the audience.
Sarah: 'Cause I think they're so good and I'm not gonna get into it. I just want to list them to, to put these ideas in people's minds. One is engagement and purpose. Financial wellness, mobility and movement, enhancing daily living and lifestyles, improving the quality and efficiency of caregiving, care coordination, maintaining brain health and improving the end of life experience. It just goes through the whole thing. But Stephen Johnston it's called, his organization was called Aging2.0 because he also used tech included technology in his strategy of trying to help people. So that's just a brief advertisement for Stephen Johnston. Stephen Johnston.
Tom: I'll put a plus one on that one. He's a brilliant guy. I think he was a Rhode Scholar originally. And Stephen's, one of the interesting things that he did at Aging2, was he was at a kind of early pioneer that was linking tech and aging, but also building an international network of ambassadors. And so he was in Japan you know just building a group there. He was in the UK, he was in Singapore. And I got a grant about seven or eight years ago from the Macquarie Foundation in Australia that was offering a kind of social innovation grant for people like me to travel around the world and learn about different models. And so I had to find a bunch of people I could interview with traveling around. And I called Stephen and he gave me like 20 different people to talk to in different countries.
Tom: And everywhere I went, they were like, oh yeah, Aging2.0, I'm the ambassador. So I was with like Louis, Luis Castillo in Spain, and.
Tom: Just different groups, different people in Colombia and it was amazing. So he's a big star and I'm glad to have.
Sarah: Yeah. He knows all the very interesting people doing...
Tom: Also to just one more point about this. Yeah. You know, there's a lot of entrepreneurship going on in aging right now and, especially specifically in the tech space. And Aging2 was sort of the first of the, or an early iteration of this. And they're still doing it. They have a fund I know they've been active, in building early stage and other supports for entrepreneurship efforts and investors. And then ARP has been doing it for years as well, and has the age tech collaborative, which is a really fascinating group of many of them are early startups that are focusing in the age tech space. And then there are other larger, more established companies that, I don't wanna put words in their mouth, but, I would consider it more an accelerator sort of approach or a, an enhancement of their kind of tech and age, age tech capacity that are now participating in it at ARP. And they've got this really interesting practice group. We're all gonna be at CES together in January. So if anybody on this call is going to CES you should come visit us at our pavilion while our camera is dying again. And I will give you, we'll get, we'll introduce you to the age tech guys, and we will also I'll buy you a drink. How's that?
Sarah: That's an offer I don't think anyone can turn down. There are a lot of companies, interesting companies doing stuff in this area. So your black camera space has distracted me from my last question and I've forgotten what it is, but [laughter]
Tom: Yeah. There we go.
Sarah: One, one last thing is if for people in the audience two other people that spring to my mind that, that Stephen Johnson didn't introduce me to personally, but people on a stage was Eve Behar, who designs technology interfaces and Chip Conley who started these hotels called Joie de Vivre. But he does, he started this thing called the Elder Academy. And if anyone's interested.
Tom: I've been there. I'm a big fan.
Sarah: You've been there?
Tom: I have visited Modern Elder, yes. I'm a.
Sarah: Lovely thing.
Tom: I'm a Chip Conley Accolade as well. I feel like I'm in cheerleader mode here, but yeah, put Chip Conley is another guy who's making incredible difference in aging.
Sarah: Yeah. Where is, it's somewhere in Baja, California.
Tom: It's it's down in, I believe the town's called Embarcadero. It's, it's Modern Elder Academy, and they have these Yeah, you can either go for very structured sessions or for, with these sort of more introspective and less structured sessions. And it's organized, I think by, in two week periods it is physically heaven on earth to go there. The guy Chip Conley ran boutique hotels before he started this. So the, the environment is beautiful and it's right on the beach in Baja, California. I think they're also launching one in Santa Fe. And it's designed for, it's kind of what I was talking about a little bit earlier, this need to rekindle some of our thinking and to recharge our batteries a little bit as we reach middle age and later age. There really aren't a lot of institutions that are supporting it intentionally.
Tom: And Chip is, was inspired with his own personal story, to start Modern Elder. And I went down there, I'm a bit of a skeptic about things like meditation and you know, mindfulness and things. And I, I kind of, I grew up in New Jersey, so we're sort of [laughter] we throw beer bottles at that stuff and... So I went down there all skeptical that this wasn't I was just gonna spend a lot of time with my notebook, planning out our next next phase of attack at OATS. And and I sort of stumbled into the meditation session at seven o'clock in the morning. This guy, Teddi Dean, runs it, and about five minutes into the meditation session, I was hooked. I was.
Sarah: Well that's, great.
Tom: I still do the meditation. Teddi Dean does it on, he has like a Sunday night meditation group that gets together every week. And I still go on that, and I meditated this morning and it's all Chip's fault.
Sarah: That's really great.
Tom: But I found very surprised at how important some of that mindfulness work was for somebody like me, who I never did that stuff. I mean, I know there's Omega Institute in New York, there's a million things in California and other states around the country, but I hadn't ever really thought it would be something that I would take to so well, but it's been, it helps me relax and, and be a little less neurotic about this stuff. You're trying to, trying to do social change, and sometimes it gets so, it feels so momentous that if you get it wrong, it's not like, oh, you missed selling That latte to somebody at the coffee shop. But it's like some person is gonna suffer greatly because we didn't reach them and we didn't, we blew it.
Tom: And, the anxiety around whether we're doing the best that we should be and whether we're sustaining these programs, it can get into whether we're sustaining ourselves. And I'm 56 and for the first time in my life I'm realizing I need to spend a little bit more time on keeping myself sane. [laughter] It helps, it's helping.
Sarah: Well, thanks for sharing that. I'm...
Tom: I am not sure it's working, but it's helping [laughter]
Sarah: No, I think it's...
Tom: I'm gonna be less in my camera.
Sarah: Necessary for everyone.
Tom: Good. This is definitely...
Sarah: I think it helps you be more creative as well, actually so, oh, just another thing for the audience. The reason Chip is, he's so interesting to this audience, I would think, is he actually started working at Airbnb when he was sort of late, when he'd sold his own company. And he has all these interesting stories about working with people about a third of his age and all the questions that he didn't... They would talk to him, but he had no idea what he was, they were talking about. It was just very interesting. And Brian Chesky asked him to go and work at Airbnb at one point to share his life experience. Anyway, let's go onto the questions that audience has. Tom.
Sarah: Are you going to stay off camera or are you...
Tom: Well, we'll see if it pops back on. It was working, it's never done this before, so I'll keep trying different things to see if I can cool it down. I think it's just overheating for some reason.
Sarah: I'm just wondering if it's our platform. But...
Tom: No, no, it's the camera. It could be the platform. Maybe. I haven't used the platform either, but we'll see. Should come up. I'll let you know.
Sarah: Okay. Theo asks, hi, Tom. I'm wondering how was OATS mission impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic? Any generalizable lessons learned, which come to mind?
Tom: No, I've tried to put a little tent over the camera. We'll see if that works. [laughter], so you can watch me do like tech tech troubleshooting while also doing an interview. It's kind of fun. I'm not the only person on this call that's had these things happen. So the question is what impact did COVID-19 happen create, you know, COVID-19 had a couple of impacts it. First of all, it was a... There's prob, I guess there's three things to say. First of all, it was an absolutely unmitigated tragedy for the people that we work with, about 80% of the older adults, 80% of the deaths in the United States roughly were people older adults.
Tom: And I don't even... I would... I'm hesitant to even compare the carnage and the trauma and the pain that that caused the people in our community, the older adults themselves, their families, their supporters, their friends and people like us who work with older adults and have a real passion for this community. And so, COVID felt personal, I think, to people working in aging and still does. On the opposite side of the spectrum, it created an engine of change for some things that we had been trying to do for a long time. And I can give you a specific example. We had been doing all these trainings in person for years in centers and we're teaching 15 people at a time, and I'm having to send a trainer out with a laptop to each of the locations. And the numbers are, there's a kind of ceiling to how many people you can work with, how much impact you can have. And meanwhile, we're watching these MOOCs and online education programs and Khan Academy and things like that, they were taking off and realizing that there was, we could do a lot more if we were digital, if we had a digital channel.
Tom: And we spent at least two years trying to jump the launch of a meaningful digital educational channel that was just starting to get going when COVID hit. And in 30 days, the work that we had done in the previous two years, we probably tripled the output in one month in terms of the pace of development with Zoom and people coming online and the, people being willing to just overcome all that weird technical challenges that we were having. And we converted thousands of modules of training into online. And so and suddenly it's working. So now we've got, we had 8,700 classes last year online. We've got people from... Yeah, it's been, it was, it's really changed the game. And it's given that as together with the federal subsidies for broadband and now the sort of now functioning channel of online education and community are game changers for people.
Tom: So it has given a new opportunity to build something that's, that is responsive, that is robust, and that can hopefully protect us from the next phase of this. And that's the third thing I'll say is didn't have to be this way. We knew that all the people, well there's a book called Heat Wave about the Chicago Heat Wave, I think it's called Heat Wave that you should all get on Amazon and read. It is I think it's Eric Klinenberg maybe. And there was Heat Wave in Chicago, I think it was around 1990 and a couple hundred people died. Virtually all of them were older adults and they, they baked in their apartments and they were not reachable because they were socially isolated. And when they, when social science people scientists came and looked at what happened, they realized that the burden of a catastrophe falls on people who are, who have fewer communicative resources, who are more isolated, less engaged, may not be in the workforce, may not be in an institutional place where people are reaching them or know about them. And we don't know that those people, the people that suffer those consequences are carrying a...
Tom: An unfunded mandate in a way in our society of risk. And so when the heatwave happened in Chicago, they realized that, hey, we need to do more to build social connections with older people so that their next heatwave that happens, we know where people are, we can reach them.
Tom: And we can give them water, and cool them down. Well, when Covid happened, We knew that 20% of older people around the country were socially isolated, clinically, socially isolated. ERPs got all sorts of research about this and has published reports for years. And the AAAS around the country, the area agencies on aging are doing heroic work to provide people with food and support, but it's just not enough.
Tom: They're not, they're not very well funded. And I hate to be always complaining there's not enough money here, but there's not enough money here and there are too many isolated older people around the country, especially in many of them, are in rural areas or in lower income areas in urban communities. And we found, we did a study that found that about 42% of older people, the data were from 2019. So they're updated a bit. About 42% of older Americans don't have wireline internet at home. And, these are problems that should have been solved five or 10 years ago, and we're just getting to address them now with the new infrastructure money. And I pray that we'll get there. But it didn't have to be this way. We could have solved this earlier and should have.
Sarah: Well, we're getting to it. So, but speaking of access, I just wanna close the loop on one question I had, In terms of not having access to an internet connection, what in your mind is an affordable internet connection for seniors on average?
Tom: Abbie Hoffman says free is good. I think that probably the only person who's quoted Abbie Hoffman today, the we've done some sort of research about this with people and asked, and the responses cluster in two areas. A lot of folks say they can't afford anything but for many people it's because they are already spending money on technology. And so they're saying, listen, I'm spending $70 a month on my cable bill, or I'm spending, you know, they sort of people group this stuff together and they think I'm spending money on my electric bill. I'm spending money on my cable bill. I'm spending money purchasing devices for my telephone and communications.
Tom: And so now you're asking me to add more if I haven't ever had it before I've been living more or less functioning. I can't spend anymore. People on fixed incomes can't. I mean, when you're talking about poor people, you know, I was up in the north country in New York working with a group of older people in a rural community. And I, you know, I'm from New Jersey, so I say things like,"How much do you make? What's your monthly income?" And, people will answer the question. And so I talk, I was sitting around a table and I'm talking to a few people who are make, whose annual income is like $11,000 a year. And so, if you're under a grand a month coming in the door and somebody's asking you, can you add, you know, $10 or $20 to pay for this other thing? They're not, they're not using medications, they're not doing things that most people would consider absolutely, unavoidable.
Tom: They're avoiding them 'cause, they can't and they can't afford it. And so for, there is a population full of people out there for whom we need to figure out a way to get this paid for. The way that we did with with housing subsidies, with phone, tele original phone subsidies with snap and food benefits, you know, we don't let people starve because they can't afford food and we shouldn't let people be completely disconnected 'cause they can't afford technology. So, that's one category. The other area is when you ask people, many people will often coalesce around the $10 a month response. That's what the data show. That's not necessarily consumer behavior. You know, it may be that people will spend a little bit more, and they're obviously are very different price points for higher income people. But now with the ACP program, for a lot of people it is free.
Sarah: Right, yeah.
Tom: There are millions of older adults around the country now are signed up for ACP. People, older people are flocking, ACP. It's incredibly valuable. And for many of them, the telecom's companies are offering $30 a month programs, and they're getting the 30 on a subsidy. So, it's a wash. And I think for people who just are already under pressure with our economic challenges that we have right now, and many people's stock, you know, savings are down. And I think it's, if we can find ways to get this to people who can't afford it for free, I think that is meaningful. And if the numbers, you know, if there can be tiering above that, there's a need for that as well that's appropriate for people's incomes.
Sarah: Well, thanks. That's helpful. I've seen some incredibly low numbers.
Sarah: In surveys. So from Keeley Knight, here's a question. "Hi Tom. Are you aware of any state or community led initiatives that are doing a superior job of assisting their older populations? If so, what makes their effort so effective?" I kind of feel like you've said New York but...
Tom: Well, I won't just talk about New York.
Tom: You know, here, there's, listen, there are organizations all over in America that are doing incredible work, helping older people in their, through just community services. So, you know, I'll give you an example, San Antonio Texas is one of my favorite places on this particular topic. A few years ago we got a grant from the Humana Foundation and they said,"You can work in anywhere." They gave, there was like a list of 20 cities you could look at it. So, we surveyed them all about their senior programs. And we found that indeed San Antonio had this kind of outstanding roster of senior service organizations that were doing really, you know, just extraordinarily high quality work. They had beautiful senior centers that had fitness centers in them, that had libraries, that had airy designs and were really modern and beautiful.
Tom: They have a fantastic technology initiative around the city that's operating in a bunch of library and digital inclusion sites. And then there's extraordinary integration between the housing authority and the city council committees and things. And there's a San Antonio Area Foundation for Aging. And so we actually started work in San Antonio with Humana because we felt that was a place where when we put some, you know, one unit of energy into the program, 10 units of benefit would come out of it because of their institutional capacity. So, that's more of a collaborative environment. But there's like the Bob Ross Center, and even if you are on your way to San Antonio next week for some reason, go check out the Bob Ross Center or any of their comprehensive senior centers. They're extraordinary. I think in.
Sarah: There are great digital inclusion initiatives out there. California, there's the CTN bay Area, which is fantastic. There is the Thrive Center of Louisville, which is presenting all sorts of really innovative technology kind of demonstrations for people to access. We're working down in Florida now opening a center in Miami and other South Florida Institute on Aging is doing really great work with people. There are a lot of, there's rural tech groups that are rural aging groups that are helping seniors up in Vermont that I've been connected with over the years. There's just a lot going on out there. I would encourage people that are looking for some of the models to connect with one of the networks like American Society on Aging, where I'm really active, does an annual conference. They have 5,000 members and they are always surfacing these electrifying stories of groups that are helping people out there. Aging services are a success story in America right now, and it's really worth mining that for some really some inspiring kind of inspiration in a moment where sometimes we forget about how well we are doing with some of our programs. And agings area where there's a lot of good stuff going on.
Sarah: Oh, cool. So from Brian, thank you for that. That's really, you've given, that's a plethora of resources. Thank you so much. So Bryce Rotney Kinsley asks, Hey Tom, wondering if you can talk a little bit about the work that OATS does with older adults. What does the curriculum for your program look like? I feel like we've kind of answered that one so we can move, I think unless there's anything else you wanna. Digital literacy. Hold on. Hang on. Sorry. Oh, okay. This is quite a good one. This one is from Audi Rishabh Dugar. His question is, digital literacy is often an overlooked component of bridging the digital divide. Do you think that broadband expansion efforts around the country are doing enough to promote digital literacy? We've kind of talked about the big picture, but do you have any other thoughts on this?
Tom: I can say, the, it's a kind of a, the obvious answer is no, right [laughter], 'cause you're never doing enough. And I can, what we've learned is that the basic training is very, very powerful and very meaningful, and not everybody is getting it. I can cite a dozen examples of programs where technology distribution is taking place, but there aren't, everybody's not getting trained. And it's challenging to put together just logistically getting people to get to be aware of the technology, to have a trusted provider to line up the timing so that they receive a device and connectivity at the same time that they're getting trained and they're getting the digital adoption support. There's a lot of moving parts there, and so it requires a certain amount of organizational capacity, not insignificant amounts of funding and a lot of willpower on the part of the community to make that a priority.
Tom: And there's a need for more resources and more commitment. I will say now with the digital equity plans that are coming to bear, there is a lot of money for adoption. And I think it may be, who knows if it's gonna be enough, it's certainly enough to get going with. And I think the next couple of years will be possibly the, I don't know if you wanna use that word renaissance, but it's gonna be a real a flowering of innovation out there. And we're gonna reach a lot of people that didn't get reached before. And I think we have enough in the budget federally to make a real difference right now. So I'm optimistic.
Sarah: That's exciting.
Tom: We're gonna close. I think, there's, there are always gonna be some people that are intentionally off the grid, right? So you can't get 100% participation because you're then you're restricting people's freedom. You don't wanna do that. It's, yeah. If you know what you're not getting and you've making, you're making an intentional choice, then I support that. That's fine. It's the people that don't really know they don't have an opportunity for accurate information about the technology adoption, what you might get from it, or who can't afford it or who don't have the access or whatever the barriers are. We need to overcome those barriers for the vast majority of people. I think. I can imagine that happening in the next five years. Yes, I really do.
Tom: Then we'll have a new set of problems and challenges, but I think the people...
Sarah: Yeah, so I think I saw you say somewhere on LinkedIn that there's a connection between Miles Davis and what you do. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Tom: Well, you guys wrote that down. I was, I thought it was hilarious. So you interviewed me the other day and then did a little bio before the session and I read it and ended years ago I started a, I'm very passionate about music and I'm also passionate about social innovation. And so I've started a lot of nonprofit programs and different sectors and environments and coach people and things like that. And one of the things I started a bunch of years ago was called the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, which was a collaboration with a guy named Arturo O'Farrill, who's the sort of probably the most successful big band Latin jazz, leader and musician. He's a piano player that's out there. And we started this group to try to preserve Afro Latin Jazz, big band Latin jazz music.
Tom: And we got the program running. We've started raising money and then they got nominated for a Grammy with their next album, and they've won six Grammys since then. And they've got 40 teaching artists in the New York City schools, and he's winning all these awards and it's just taken off. I was their founding board chair, and I'm slowly have retreated into just going to the concerts, which is what I do now. But, so that was kind of a cheeky way of referring to the work I've done on social innovation.
Sarah: Oh, I see.
Tom: But it's interesting because I think there's a valid focus here on design thinking in this area. And I spent the week here with one of my team members at OATS. We're working on a dot, first of all, we're working on a report that ARPs are sponsoring with us which is a series of design tools for groups, companies that are part of that age tech collaborative and that are, that can work with ARP to implement age friendly design, ideas and models. But even more than that we're working in the social impacts space and a space and aging right. But a lot of design thinking, a lot of the innovation the value of innovation in America's society has concentrated in technology for the last couple of decades. Right. You've got the big, the people like Johnny Ives at Apple that are now superstars internationally that help design these.
Tom: These products that have changed our lives. In the social impact space a lot of those design thinking elements are happening organically, but we don't package them very often. We don't always recognize the value of importing that set of practices as kind of a modality of thinking into the work we're doing. And at OATS and Senior Planet, we actually do use those ideas very intentionally so we do a workshop called Design Against Ageism for our partner sites around the country. We have this free Senior Planet licensing program that's got 152 licensed partners now and all of them are offered this module around how to think like a designer when you're building local programming.
Tom: And it allows people to activate questions like how do you create a delightful experience for your customer? What is a net promoter score? How do you evaluate your impact with people and co-design and then prototype and then iterate and then evaluate and make things so that they are adaptable because often good design is adaptive and responsive to people. So we're really trying to use the work that we have at OATS when we work with other organizations to build a little bit more design sensibility around the work that we're doing out there and it is making a difference. It's making a difference in everything from how you organize the chairs in a senior center to how you build a program in terms of collaborations with some of the community partners that we work with.
Sarah: So the connection between jazz and your work is constant improvisation on a structure.
Sarah: I see.
Tom: Sure. And I will just say I know I'm no Miles Davis [laughter]
Sarah: I don't know I'm sure lots of people would not agree with that but one of the things I thought that talking about design, this is on a different level, but one of the really interesting things you said was in talks you've given before is about how app designers and technology designers are constantly updating. I think it was you who said that they're constantly updating their interfaces. So people have to keep learning things over and over again, that's a challenge for even the best of us. I don't know how people who aren't into technology deal with that. Do you know if there's been any progress in actually getting app designers to think a bit more about the general population?
Tom: Well, there's the market, right? So the more intuitive the apps are. I always say that older adults are your canary in the coal mine when it comes to product design because if your 70 year old neighbor can't use it, it's going to be less intuitive for everyone else as well. They may kind of muddle through but if it's something that you're finding that older individuals are walking at, that's a signal that you need to go back to the drawing board a little bit from a user experience point of view but and so there is a kind of migration toward... I'm sitting here with a just malfunctioning camera. So I shouldn't say technology is solving all these problems, but it is getting better. I think it has gotten simpler. Things are working a little bit better. People are at least aware that universal design is a concept that exists. And designers have usually read, like, at least one article about it. And we're doing at central Miami, and the local building contractor said, well, these doors need to be ADA width, right? And we said, yes, we're so glad we didn't have to tell you that, and you asked in the first place. This stuff is beginning to really take root.
Tom: At the same time, the way that technology is evolving and the constellation of changes that's taking place in any given period is forcing us to reformulate how we're working with older people particularly because if you're in a certain kind of a social network where everyone around you is adapting to these changes in real time. When a new app comes out or a new interface happens or they tweak the old one, it's a small change and you see it as it's changing and your neighbor or your friend or your girlfriend is using it and so you pick it up kind of on the fly, kind of like language where there's a new term that gets introduced. But if you're socially isolated or you're in a group that's not using that technology, which many people on the older spectrum are experiencing, they're not seeing those changes as organically as the rest of the population and so we need ways of showing those changes to people in a sort of natural setting, and people can adapt to them, which is why at Senior Planet Centers, we're using these principles. I think you asked me about this earlier before the session, about this book I read by Everett Rogers called...
Tom: Diffusion of Innovation. Ever Rogers is this researcher that was studying social networks and how new innovations get diffused through the networks. And one of the things he learned was that people adapt to new innovations when they can observe them and they can try them out. He calls it trialability and observability. And we've built the Senior Planet Centers to activate that observability and trialability so that they can come in and people can see the session taking place, they can watch others that are using technology and free of charge just kind of wander around and soak it in and then get on a computer and try it out. And we've got volunteers helping people test out things and it's very low stress. It's not like, oh, my God, you have to spend $500 on this thing before you're going to use it. It's no, come on over here and I'll show you how it uses, how it works, and you can knock it around a little bit. And those kinds of environments need to get built in more places so that the natural change that technology is bringing to our homes and our communities is absorbed and engaged with by older people in a more sort of continuous way and they don't get left behind.
Sarah: That's such a great insight. Thanks for sharing that. So this is a bit of an odd question, esoteric question, but you know these senior planet physical centers that you have, are they, where are they located usually and are they categorized as a community anchor institution?
Tom: I think of them as a community anchor institution. I'm not sure there may be a specific regulatory structure to that term in certain places where we may not qualify. If it's a funding thing, somebody if it's for very technical reasons, you can ask me to look it up, but I can find out for you. They are located in New York City, Denver, Colorado. We are going to open one in Miami in next summer. So that's in the, we have a lease signed and we're designing it. So I'm gonna say that's gonna exist. We've got one in and we have a huge program in San Antonio, which is, doesn't have a physical center in the same way that some of the other sites do, but we've got about 10 staff working in those senior centers there. We've got a rural kind of showcase up in upstate New York, in Plattsburgh, which is right on the border of Canada. And they have the radio is in French, which I think is pretty cool. And we're looking at building a couple more in the next few years with the ARP support.
Sarah: And are they near things like libraries or how...
Tom: We try to locate them in urban centers where there's a high concentration of older adults, higher concentrations of lower income people, and folks that might be underserved in terms of the, where real estate's available that kind of drive some of the decision making so that the one in Manhattan, for example, is in Chelsea, which is, we really needed to pick somewhere that people could get on public transit, 'cause a lot of New Yorkers are using the train and the bus. But when we did one in Denver, we ended up at the Lowry Air Force Base, which is easily drivable for a lot of people. But it's in a kind of funky innovative space that's got a, it's actually in a reclaimed part of an airplane hanger.
Sarah: Wow. So are they, I'm just wondering on behalf of our viewers, if they're interested in visiting these places. Are there addresses on seniorplanet.org or how.
Tom: They would be on, yeah, if they can look them up on seniorplanet.org. They can also just email to email@example.com if they wanted to see if there was a center. There's a lot of stuff going on around the country that Oats is doing that's community-based, which doesn't have to be a senior planet center, but there may be a partner that's running Oats programs all day long. And so if you wanted to connect to our local, a local initiative, just there's a hotline on senior plant.org. You call the hotline and say, what do you have going on in Seattle, or what do you have going on in Maine? And then there's also firstname.lastname@example.org. Just send us an email and we'll put you in touch with...
Sarah: Great. Thank you so much. Thanks Tom. So Ben I'm gonna call on Ben. Who is our behind the scenes moderator here? Moderator? Moderator. Is, do we just hang up or what do we do?
Ben Kahn: I'll take care of that.
Tom: There's a hope that comes through and yanks me off like a vaudeville show.
Ben: I love it. Yeah, sure. So on, yeah, on behalf of the broadband grants community. Thank you Sarah. Thank you Tom for participating in this event. I know that this was a lot of value to a lot of our viewers, so thank you both.
Sarah: Yeah, thanks.
Tom: Thank you. I really, I really enjoyed doing it. Thank you, Sarah, for your patience with my tech issues and great questions.
Sarah: No, I enjoyed talking with you. Thank you so much. I'm gonna have a great weekend and I'm gonna sign off.
Tom: All right, you too. Thanks.
Sarah: Take care. Bye