06/02 - Automated phone, Internet help systems frustrate seniors - East Valley Tribune: Business

06/02 - Automated phone, Internet help systems frustrate seniors

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Posted: Monday, June 2, 2003 7:14 am | Updated: 12:58 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

Ruth Hopkins, 88, doesn’t much care for telephone answering systems. And forget about a computer.

When she calls her pharmacy and is asked to punch in lengthy identification and prescription numbers, the Mesa resident gets frustrated. Very frustrated.

And she starts hitting "0" in an effort to talk to a live human being.

"Otherwise you get a concert for an hour before you get to talk to anybody," Hopkins said. "Or a computer will ask me for a number for my prescription, and it’s yea long," she said, holding up fingers 2 feet apart.

Hopkins is like many senior citizens. She is in need of health care services — she has cataracts and arthritis — but these services are increasingly offered with the help of phone systems and Internet-based mechanisms used to streamline health insurance, office visits and pharmacy services.

That technology frustrates many older patients — the people who those health care services serve the most, said Marge Johnson, who with her husband, Peter, volunteer two days a week helping Valley seniors navigate through the myriad of social services available to them. In the process, the couple have become experts in Medicare.

"A good share of the people (who call a state hotline) are in tears when they call — they’re sick, they don’t have any money and they have no idea how to get their medications," Marge Johnson said. "A lot of seniors tell me, ‘They’re just waiting for us to die.’ That’s not easy to hear."

A May 8 report from Harris Interactive, an international market research firm, found that 110 million people sometimes look for health information online, up from 97 million a year ago. But, a minority of those people are seniors.

Of adults ages 18 to 20 who use the Internet, 82 percent did so for health-related topics. But of those ages 65 and older who use the Internet, only 26 percent did so to find health-related information, according to the report.

And just 8.9 percent of people aged 65 and older use the Internet, compared with 42.3 percent of people aged 15 to 64, according to a 2000 study by the University of California San Francisco’s Institute for Health and Aging.

While other studies show that baby boomers are using the Internet in growing numbers, this technology gap does get in the way of people using health care services, said Bill Arnold, a professor of communication who directs the gerontology program at Arizona State University in Tempe.

"We’re going to face a crisis," Arnold said. "As we’re getting older, we’re going to need more services, and we don’t in turn know where to get them."

The problem can be explained by the generation gap — younger people grew up using computers in school and home, while the machines are intimidating to those who didn’t, said Herman Cohen, 76, who volunteers in the Scottsdale Healthcare Information Center at Scottsdale Fashion Square, often helping seniors look for health-related information on the Internet.

"To many of them, it’s a mysterious object. They can’t get the idea that it’s like being at the help desk of your library," said Cohen, who retired from a 35-year career as a computer analyst. "People are afraid to even touch a computer. Or the reverse, you have the macho system where the guy will bang the keys down."

But there is assistance. The local senior hotline is underused, and the Scottsdale Healthcare information centers are often empty — even though both services are free of charge, and always staffed by people willing to help answer health care questions.

Alma Meyers, 80, conquered the Internet four years ago when her daughter bought her a computer so she could e-mail family members. She has used the machine to look up information on her greatgrandson’s heart defect, and about a rare disease suffered by a little boy whom her friend knew, in addition to finding bread pudding recipes.

But the Mesa resident hasn’t yet figured out how to fill her prescriptions online, and she has no patience for telephone answering systems.

"Oh, I hate it with a purple passion!" said Meyers, who was wearing a purple blouse that day.

Senior citizen resources

Where seniors can find help with their health care services. For help with Medicare and other services, call the Area Agency on Aging’s 24-hour hotline at (602) 264-4357, or the State Health Insurance Assistance Program at (800) 432-4040. Make a free visit to one of the following Benefits Assistance Program sites:

• Civic Center Senior Center 7375 E. Second St., Scottsdale (480) 312-7702 1 to 3 p.m. Tuesdays (by appointment)

• East Mesa Senior Center/Red Mountain Center 7550 E. Adobe Road, Mesa (480) 218-2221 9 a.m. to noon Wednesdays

• Fountain Hills Senior Activity Center 16957 Kiwanis Drive, Fountain Hills (480) 816-5888 By appointment

• Guadalupe Senior Center 9401 S. Avenida del Yaqui, Guadalupe (480) 730-3092 Counseling available in Spanish

• Mesa Senior Center 247 N. Macdonald, Mesa (480) 962-5612 9 a.m. to noon Thursdays

• Sun Lakes Health Center 10440 E. Riggs Road, Sun Lakes (480) 264-7787 9 a.m. to noon Fridays

• Via Linda Senior Center 10440 E. Via Linda, Scottsdale (480) 312-5810 10 a.m. to noon Wednesdays (by appointment)

Computer classes

Computer classes geared toward seniors are offered at: Scottsdale Civic Center Senior Center, 7375 E. Second St., (480) 312-2375. Call for times and prices. For medical-related questions visit:

• Scottsdale Healthcare Health Information Centers 9003 E. Shea Blvd. (480) 860-3888 Scottsdale Fashion Square 7014 E. Camelback Road (480) 421-0598

• Mayo Clinic Scottsdale Patient and Health Education Library 3400 E. Shea Blvd. (480) 301-8000

• Banner Desert Family Resource Center 1400 S. Dobson Road, Mesa (602) 230-2273

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