NEW BRUNSWICK — The "digital divide" is a phrase we've mostly heard connected to school-aged children navigating remote learning throughout the past year during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But there's a similar gap among senior citizens, and not just in availability of technology. Not only do many seniors not have digital devices, but they would have no idea how to use them if they did.

And those devices could obviously go a long way toward connecting senior citizens with their families during this continuing, extended period of social isolation.

In New Brunswick, technology access and training are equal components of a pilot program that is loaning 300 tablets to members of the city's Senior Community Resource Center.

It's the result of a partnership between New Brunswick's Department of Social Services and the city-based Parker Health Group, which has been a part of the community for more than a century.

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Social Services director Melanie Ford said ensuring the "virtual vitality" of seniors is key to enhancing their quality of life, especially by offering them online programs and services including telehealth appointments.

"It couldn't be a greater opportunity for us to stay connected and make sure that our residents are doing well and faring well," Ford said.

Donna Silbert, chief strategy officer for Parker, agrees, saying that giving seniors an easy way to take an exercise class, or learn a skill, or simply surf the Web, allows them to live their best lives.

Silbert said bringing senior citizens up to speed on technology has always been important, but COVID accelerated that process and made it more of a necessity than a luxury.

"While we moved fast, it probably is never fast enough, because there are so many people in need," Silbert said. "But I think there's great momentum."

Parker Health Group is also helping New Brunswick reactivate its Dial-A-Ride system, which provides free, curb-to-curb, non-emergency transportation for low-income, minority, disabled, or senior residents to get to any type of appointment within an eight-mile radius.

And even though the tablets are just loaners, for now, both parties hope to continue to find ways to help seniors. Parker is also exploring how to bring similar programs to neighboring municipalities.

Membership in New Brunswick's Senior Community Resource Center is open to any city resident age 60 and over, with no fees or dues.

For more information, call 732-745-5100.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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