Bernardston Senior Digital Literacy Program in Massachusetts

Introduction

In the spring of 2023, the The Executive Office of Elder Affairs (EOEA) announced a $1.5 million grant program to help Councils on Aging (COAs) improve the digital literacy of older adults. The grant was funded by American Rescue Plan Act Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS) that is designed to help Councils on Aging (COAs) improve the digital literacy of older adults.

The goal of the grant was to help older adults use technology in a way that strengthens, enhances and expands HCBS. This could include helping older adults engage in telehealth, access medical information, connect with family or caregivers, participate in preventive health courses, participate in healthy aging programming, or find and access support to age in the community.

Jennifer Reynolds, Director of Bernardston Senior Center and COA partnered with Claris Companion using this program and launched what came to be known as the Northern Franklin County Digital Discovery Project

Q. What led you to start this program?

“I started this program due to a digital desert in Western Massachusetts. Franklin County is the most rural county in Massachusetts and many areas have no internet, slow internet and some areas still only have dial-up connections. My goal was to enhance digital literacy and digital access to older adults that are underserved in this area and break barriers for older adults who have no access to digital training, digital products and improve social loneliness.  Overall, I wanted to help older adults use technology in a way that strengthens, enhances and expands their ability. This includes helping older adults engage in telehealth, access medical information, connect with family or caregivers, participate in preventive health courses, participate in healthy aging programming, or find and access supports to age in the community.”

Q. What results have you seen from seniors on the program?

“We have seen an increase in confidence surrounding using digital platforms and digital devices, and have seen a dramatic decrease in social isolation and loneliness as older adults are now emailing with friends and family. In addition, some of our older adults are now connecting on social media and other chat platforms.”

 

Outcomes and Impact: Bridging the Digital Divide

Through the Enhanced Digital Literacy for Older Adults Grant, Jennifer strategically implemented the Claris Companion program and other digital literacy tools, transforming the lives of seniors and reshaping community engagement. The outcomes observed so far have been remarkable—an increase in technology use and participation, a new sense of excitement, and a “can-do” attitude among seniors.

Testimonials reflect a newfound sense of independence and a decrease in social isolation. Seniors now engage in messaging, video calls, and virtual participation, fostering a vibrant community. Volunteers have increased, contributing to technology-related activities. Jennifer emphasizes the tangible impact, with one senior expressing gratitude for attending church virtually, breaking physical barriers.

The program has become a hub for connecting older adults with essential community information. Direct links to town meetings, senior center newsletters, and personalized content requests have sparked an uptick in community engagement.

Future Initiatives: Expanding Virtual Programming

Responding to the growing interest in virtual programming, Jennifer discusses plans to deploy the YMCA program through the tablets. With the capability to deliver hybrid programming seven days a week, the initiative goes beyond basic digital literacy to offer a diverse range of activities. 

Looking to the future, Jennifer envisions additional initiatives such as digital storytelling for families coping with dementia and Alzheimer’s. The session explores the evolving landscape of virtual programming, emphasizing its potential to revolutionize community services and support the well-being of older adults.