Zoom Aplenty


Tuesday was a triple-header Zoom day. It led off with an early morning Silver Sneakers stretching class broadcast via the smartphone propped next to me on the floor. At my computer an hour later, I logged into my annual Medicare wellness appointment with my doctor. And that evening, while chopping vegetables in the kitchen, glass of wine in hand, I Zoomed into a happy hour call with five far-flung friends who began the tradition during the 2020 hunker-down, and have merrily continued it.

Two years ago, my online exercise, appointments, and social life felt like a temporary pandemic Band-Aid because surely, post-COVID, we’d be back to meeting in the same room. Surprisingly, however, many of those virtual meetups have become a permanent fixture in my life. They’re more convenient. Easier. More frequent because there’s no dressing up or navigating traffic. And they can be engaging. It turns out a Zoom happy hour is as fun and gossipy as it was in person.

The popular Zoom platform was born out of long-distance necessity. Developed by a tech engineer with a long-distance girlfriend, Eric Yuan yearned for a technology that felt more akin to in-person communication. Something easy to use, stable, useable on a computer or mobile device with high-quality real-time video and audio—a combination of features previous web-based video systems like Skype lacked. Along with a team of colleagues Yuan developed Zoom, launching it in January 2013. Of the platform’s many advantages, the most enticing was that it was free for calls up to 45 minutes with groups up to 100 people.

The Senior Learning Network was an early 2014 Zoom adopter. The organization provides live virtual programs for elder adults in senior centers and living communities, and they particularly liked the technology’s high-quality video and audio that made it easier for older adults with hearing and vision loss to participate.

It took the 2020 onset of the pandemic for Zoom to explode in popularity. In March that year it was downloaded 2.13 million times in a single day. As businesses, universities, K-12 schools, and other necessary services scrambled to continue remote operations, many turned to Zoom. Family and friends who wanted to mingle or celebrate weddings and birthdays discovered invitees could not only Zoom into the event, but they could also do it from anywhere in the world. Museums, theaters, and literary organizations found unique ways to create and host live experiences over the platform. I took a virtual tour about Tlingit art hosted by the Burke Museum, attended a New York City fundraising event, and participated in a Road Scholar Zoom classroom trip to Istanbul all from my living room. By the time the pandemic restrictions lifted, Zoom had embedded itself in the social and educational gestalt. In May 2022, there were close to 1.3 billion unique global Zoom users.

Despite Zoom’s potential, there are barriers for a surprising number of our 65 plus demographic. Like many of you I have a smartphone, a laptop, and some leftover, albeit rusty, digital skills from my former job. What about seniors who don’t have the technology or technical know-how? In January 2022, Pew Research Center reported that 25% of adults 65 and older don’t use the Internet and only 61% own a smartphone. AARP’s 2020 report, Aging Connected: Exposing the Hidden Connectivity Crisis for Older Adults, concluded that “nearly 22 million American seniors do not have wireline broadband access at home.”

Without Internet, a smartphone or computer, and broadband access there are availability and connectivity issues for an interactive platform like Zoom. Slower speed Internet allows video but won’t show the smiling faces of everyone in a group family call, and if there’s a data cap, it can create erratic transfer rates and connection problems. A non-smart mobile phone can be used to access a Zoom connection using a toll-free number, but then there’s no video. And those are just the technical device problems. How do you learn to use an interactive video system that looks like it came right out of a Jetsons episode?

Eighteen years ago, AARP began to address the senior digital skills barrier with a nonprofit program called OATS (Older Adults Technology Services), whose Senior Planet training programs deliver free, accessible, and non-intimidating tech training specifically designed for seniors. When COVID shuttered the organization’s training sites, Senior Planet shifted online, offering easy-to-use classes and handouts that introduce a variety of digital skills, including Zoom in bite-sized chunks. Current offerings on their website include Getting Started With Zoom, Join A Zoom Meeting From Your Phone, Zoom Video and Audio Controls, Introduction to Hosting on Zoom, and Video Chat With Zoom.

Locally, Washington State University King County Extension offers a cyber-senior program pairing seniors wanting to learn tech skills with tech-savvy young people. And Puget Sound area public libraries, as well as many community senior centers, offer computer training and support.

What’s being done to solve the technical device and connectivity gap? In June 2022, the White House introduced the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), a package of initiatives designed to bring high-speed Internet to qualified households. It creates an additional resource to the established Federal Communication Commission Lifeline program. Both are designed to bring affordable high-speed Internet to low-income households. More than 100 million individuals qualify for ACP, which contributes $30 a month ($75 if residing on tribal land) for Internet service from a list of qualifying providers, and $100 toward the purchase a mobile or desktop computer. Qualifying seniors can register online, by mail, or by visiting a listed service provider for assistance.

As the pandemic proved, the tools and skills to access video communications technology are becoming a necessity instead of a luxury for senior daily living. Tele-health appointments allowing visual interaction with a medical professional, friends and family real-time video connections to minimize isolation, and easily accessible, interactive learning opportunities to maximize brain health are among Zoom’s multitude of uses.

The Jetsons video phone is no longer the futuristic stuff of a Saturday morning cartoon, though that’s not the case for many in our generation. To paraphrase a federal initiative intended to bridge the access and opportunity gap for children, “No Olders Left Behind Either.”

Ann Randall is a freelance writer, organizational consultant and independent traveler who loves venturing to out-of-the-way locales from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. Retired from a career as a teacher and union organizer in public education, she now observes international elections, does volunteer work in India and writes regularly for 3rd Act, Northwest Travel & Life, West Sound Home & Garden, Fibre Focus and Dutch the Magazine.


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