ACM SIGCAS Computers and Society

Volune 20 - Issue 3 (October 1990)

Some years ago, I had the joy of associating myself with Computer Engineers and discovering that they had lots of interest in the work I was doing.  The following article is a result of this association:

Computers and Social Change for Quality Long Living

The Let's Connect! Project
Robert V. Gallant

To most Americans, AAA means Quality Motoring. Area Agencies on Aging, set up since the Great Society years to pave the way along the road to old age in America, are AAAs known to very few. In this COMING OF AGE year of celebration of a twenty five year old investment in these AAAs, this report presents work applying computer technologies to America's Aging Network social systems to attempt to make them as relevant to living Quality Long Lives as the AAA has been to our motoring experience.

Pursued from a perspective of empowerment philosophy, the work has attempted a "repositioning" of an Area Agency on Aging / Home Care / Council on Aging base in Western Massachusetts as a model contributing to such changes nationally (1).

Picture accordingly a Main Street America, small town or cityscape, hall or mall, where a Fountain of Age, WELLSPRING, flashes its beckoning 'back to the future' laser pictures at you. Touch the screen and select either VOICE, DOLLAR, INFO, or PEOPLE POWER. VOICE lets you register your opinion on the need for more accessible parking in town, DOLLAR lets you pay your electric bill from what you earned yesterday from the sale of your French Bread, INFO lets you get a printout on home health service providers, and in PEOPLE, you make arrangements to join the local caregivers  group to get some help for yourself around caring for your father whose health has been failing.

The Let's Connect! Project is piloting this vision, turning the agency's meals on wheels identity into a 'let's make a deal' presence and turning meal sites into community stock exchanges. Offered intergenerationally as a Personal Power Trading System, Let's Connect! seeks to address the continuing problems of lack of information, isolation, dependency, economic constraints, and social 'irrelevance' and enables older adults and younger people alike to take charge of their lives and of their community through easy access to comprehensive information and resources.

This work has approached the application of technology from the perspective suggested by Daniel Yankelovich Group's (2) findings that older people are more likely to use technology in the pursuit of "filling time" or "fostering an active life outside the home" than in "saving time". "The need of today's older Americans is not for technology that does things for them, saves time or replaces activities, but for enhancement and simplification technology that makes things easier to do, more enjoyable or actually creates fulfilling activities." (op. cit.).

Empowerment is a stance which, as expressed by Jack Ossofsky, recently retired President of the National Council on the Aging, allows "free people (to) have viable options among which they may freely choose. Not just political empowerment but...the creation of community-based services that are adequate, acceptable and affordable...empowering an older person to be able to choose from an array of services meeting her or his perception of needs...confidence in, and training of older participants in matters of policy, program and governance (3). Rappaport (4) offers that "empowerment is a which people, organizations and communities gain mastery over their affairs."

Using the approach suggested by Estes (5) "To look at the problems created by policy, society, and government rather than to scrutinize the victims of these policies, older citizens" this work, finally, has been built upon the belief that increasing peoples' access to VOICE, DOLLAR, INFO, and PEOPLE POWERS lifts both individual elders and the social service agency, in this case, the Area Agency on Aging, out of the welfare/dependency/illness/segregation status assigned to them in current prevailing social policies.

Combining tools for health care information, self/mutual help efforts, consumer benefits, private partnerships and grassroots planning, Let's Connect! expresses these empowerment stances in software (a customized relational data base written in Paradox) and economic systems through which members exchange relationships, goods, services, information and opinions.

Members' connections to each other and to agency resources are brokered and exchanges are recorded centrally at the Area Agency on Aging base. Acting as "bank", the agency records economic transactions as debits and credits in MEMBER DOLLARS, Let's Connect!'s unit of exchange. This feature has been developed from the "local exchange trading system" (LETS) (6) modified under a grant as part of the American Association for International Aging's Income-Generating Project for the Aging (IGPA) (7) and with funding from the Families USA Foundation (formerly The Villers Foundation).

WELLSPRING, a catalog of members' offerings and requests, is published monthly along with the monthly meals menu. With the participation of the retail sector, one member might hire another as a financial planner, homemaker or driver, and credits earned by the financial planner or driver can be utilized for purchases at the grocery store -- with exchanges possible beyond the immediate two parties and no money changing hands.

The business community can earn these credits by honoring them and can either use them itself, spending in the system, or donate them to benefit the membership.  Such an expansion of purchasing power gives members jobs which they can shape and a ready market for their goods and services; it also allows retailers to benefit from new business generated and generates income for the sponsoring Area Agency on Aging through mechanisms based on volume of business generated. Beyond covering Let's Connect!'s operating expenses, proceeds flow to a Quality Long Living Investment fund which;

A) Expands the agency's operating capital base
B) Allows investments in staff resources
C) Allows for new programming through expanded seed and grant monies which include grants and loans to individual members and community groups.

In addition, VOICE POWER is used to register opinions and to generate movement on issues in an interactive and continuing manner through "issues of the month (or day)".   Livability ratings, opinion and satisfaction polls recording peoples' experience in the system, yield member driven strategies for social change and system quality control. INFO POWER gives answers to questions on community services, public events, health and legal resources. These last components link directly and give grassroots input to the area agency's information and referral, advocacy and planning systems.

PEOPLE POWER increases opportunities to meet people with whom members are likely to share common interests. It offers the friendly exchanges of small town life with the added strength of a member organization while mobilizing people as resources to each other rather than as 'clients'. Since this and all other components of Let's Connect! are intergenerational and invite participation by people of all ages, broad mobilization of paid and volunteer resources are made possible for self/mutual help activities on a community-wide basis. People connect for all sorts of reasons - from playing chess to sharing the tricks of caregiving or coping.

Implementation currently is testing the hard copy 'catalog' model with inputs from Power Cards developed to date with access to the system 'brought home' through cable TV listings on What's My Line or Home Shopping-type shows; access through people-friendly touch kiosk terminals at a meal site/senior center or at the local mall or through Smart Card, Minitel and SeniorNet-type (8) network systems is in development. A network of local systems is envisioned through community senior center/Area Agency on Aging bases across the country for one stop AAAs as people invest in social wealth for Quality Long Living.

Endnote: this project has since evolved into the CitizensMatch model being piloted at - check it out!