A program aiming to help the digitally isolated during COVID-19 will have lasting benefits for older Australians long after the pandemic is over.
The Good Things Foundation Australia was awarded a $1 million federal government digital devices grant, initially aimed at combating social isolation during the pandemic, to be administered through its Be Connected program.
The grants will enable the purchase of loan digital devices and data for older Australians. This will improve their access to the internet, which has become more important than ever with the pandemic.
Older Australians receiving a device will be supported to access learning materials on the Be Connected website. When the pandemic is over, the devices will be returned to community organisations for ongoing use in digital skills programs.
A total of 215 organisations across the country have received digital device grants.
One organisation to benefit from the grant is Tamworth-based Digital IQ, which delivers support to people across the New England region.
Following the impact of the drought, bushfires and now COVID-19 restrictions, it's been tough times for those in towns and remote locations. Twenty-six per cent of people in the north-west New England region are over the age of 65, which represents 14,000 seniors, many of whom don't have access to technology.
Before COVID-19 hit, people in the region were visiting libraries or attending workshops to access support. But with restrictions in place and branches being forced to close, they have been forced to find alternative ways.
Digital IQ's Derek Tinksaid the Be Connected program is all about "encouraging digital connectivity, encouraging people to get online and breaking down the digital divide".
"We're passionate about helping communities, particularly in regional and rural areas - with everything that's been happening with drought, bushfire and most recently COVID," Mr Tink said.
Mr Tink said when talking to people about accessing drought support, it was evident that technology was an obstacle for many.
"In many instances, people were telling us they don't even access the internet or they can't even access a computer," Mr Tink said.
During COVID-19, Digital IQ really "ramped things up", identifying who may be socially isolated and getting in touch with a friendly, "how are you going".
While COVID-19 has seen a rapid move to online government services and commerce, Digital IQ's focus remains "connecting friends and families."
"With the drought, I saw how it was impacting communities, I was looking for an opportunity to put more back into the community, to help people and really wanted to make sure people were connecting as best they could - to keep an eye on each other.
"When there has been a suicide in the community, it's had a very significant impact on me and our team - we really want to make sure people are talking and connecting."
For those who are isolated, technology is a great tool to connect with their family and friends.
"Using video chat tools, as an example, to keep an eye on each other, and or, helping communities connect so that if someone is feeling bit down or troubled they don't feel isolated."
There have, Mr Tink said, been some great success stories as a result of the Be Connected program. One of those stories comes from Currabubula on the Liverpool Plains, NSW.
"I had a gentleman who came in off his farm and he had a great deal of anxiety during the workshop.
"After the workshop, I sat down with him and we started to identify what his challenges were with internet technologies.
"He had a smartphone, and that was interesting, but he didn't know how to use it properly.
"He had massive big hands like a farmer does, so just trying to press the buttons was a challenge for him but we worked through that.
"The source of his anxiety was that he didn't know how to return missed calls and so he never felt like putting the phone down.
"Once I showed him how to do those simple steps and how to connect back with family and friends it was a massive relief for him and now he's become a big fan."
People needing support to learn digital skills can access: Be Connected website: https://beconnected.esafety.gov.au