The eligible senior population faces significant barriers to accessing and using web-based benefits access tools and has had historically lower rates of participation in benefit programs than non-senior adults. For example, according to the latest (2009) USDA estimates, about one-third of eligible elderly persons participate in SNAP - compared to 72 percent of all eligible individuals (Leftin 2010). Seniors with low-income are also less likely to have computer and broadband access at home that allows them to access web-based benefit tools, and seniors may experience greater difficulty in accessing services outside of the home due to decreased mobility and the need for transportation assistance (Chu et al. 2009). Health issues, including hearing and vision problems, can limit their ability to use web-based benefits access tools even when they are physically accessible (Chu et al. 2009). In addition, seniors with low-income are likely to have low levels of digital literacy and may require assistance using computer and Internet technology (Rideout et al., 2005).
Seniors also face many other barriers to benefits application in general. For example, research suggests that seniors participate in SNAP at lower rates than others, in part because they doubt their eligibility for benefits (McConnell and Ponza 1999). Studies also suggest that gaps in knowledge about available benefits, fear of stigma and other psychological reasons, program administration, and complexity of the enrollment process are significant reasons for nonparticipation by the senior population (Summer 2009; McConnell and Ponza 1999).
Given these barriers and needs, seniors might benefit from the following:
- Mobile outreach and application assistance units (equipped with laptop computers, wireless service, scanner/printer/fax machines, and other necessary technology) that visit seniors in their homes, community centers, or places of worship, and provide them with on-site benefit application assistance
- Ability to submit documentation, including signatures, electronically
- Outreach and education strategies that increase knowledge of unmet need for benefit services among the low-income senior population and explain web-based options for accessing benefits applications
- Web-based benefits access tools available for the blind and deaf