NEWS

Technology May Be Preventing Seniors from Getting the COVID-19 Vaccine

A daughter is helping her mother use a tablet

Key Takeaways

  • 45% of adults over 65 don’t have online medical accounts, often necessary for vaccine registration.
  • Despite most adults being able to navigate the state registration websites, many older people are struggling to use these systems.
  • Younger people have had to obtain appointments for their older loved ones. 


Registering for the COVID-19 vaccine has proven to be quite the challenge, and even more so for older adults and those without computer access. A poll published in the National Archive of Computerized Data on Aging showed that 42% of people aged 50 to 80, and 45% over age 65, never had set up accounts in their doctors' patient portals. The poll sampled data from 2,000 adults.

"Right now, one important thing that we can do for older adults is to encourage and help them to sign up for patient portal access, if their provider offers one, especially if it will be used as part of the COVID-19 vaccination process," said poll director Preeti Malani, MD, an infectious disease physician at University of Michigan Medicine. She said the portals also are an easy and organized way for patients to keep up with medical records.

The poll was a repeat of one conducted in 2018, which reported 49% of those in the study age range did not have access to their patient portals. That does show some progress in getting seniors online, but the number is far from enough to properly reach older people and help them make crucial vaccination appointments.

For those who are unable to navigate online scheduling, Malani says, “If they don’t have a computer, or they need help navigating the technology, they can appoint a trusted adult as their ‘proxy’ to access their account.” 

State Registration Systems Cater to Younger, Abled Individuals 

Creating online registries for the COVID-19 vaccine may have seemed like the most efficient way to schedule appointments. However, many of those websites seem to be seamless only for those who are tech-savvy, which is leading many younger people to fill in the gaps. They are the ones helping their older loved ones struggling to register in the databases created in every state. 

More people 65 and over are using the internet than 20 years ago—73% have internet access compared with 14% in 2000. Also, 53% of them own smartphones, but as anyone who’s visited the Apple Store midday may know, owning a device and understanding it are two different things.

Vincent Myers of New Jersey is a director of special projects for his public school system, and he is accustomed to dealing with a population with varied levels of need. He calls himself a local COVID hub, since he has been a source of help for many who don’t have internet access or the ability to revisit a site multiple times a day.

“I am sharing all of the possible sign-up links I have and sharing the state link to independent vaccine sites. Some of the people that I’ve tried to help have had great success calling the independent locations and getting appointments within one to two weeks,” says Myers. That includes a friend with stage 3 colon cancer who’s been struggling to find an appointment. 

Preeti Malani, MD

Right now, one important thing that we can do for older adults is encourage and help them to sign up for patient portal access if their provider offers one, especially if it will be used as part of the COVID-19 vaccination process.

— Preeti Malani, MD

For Jillian C., it has taken quite a bit of effort to get her high-risk father an appointment. Though she was successful, he will have to wait a few weeks. "The system was not designed for our senior citizens who aren't technologically advanced," she says.

"My dad doesn't use the internet or have a smartphone, and given his health issues, it is quite scary that this is something he quite literally could not have done himself," she says.

Jillian explains that the state of New Jersey has been using the honor system for priority categories, enabling many able-bodied people to “jump the line” ahead of those who really need it. This has been a great source of frustration.

"Too many of these spots are being filled up with people who aren't on the priority list yet,” she states. “I don't begrudge anyone their chance, but it does frustrate me that my dad, who has barely left the house in over 10 months, has to wait when he is at the top of the list given his health concerns.”

She is grateful that her father is a few weeks away from no longer fearing COVID-19, and she believes that is worth the wait. She also hopes that others like him have someone to advocate for them.

Some States Are Going the Extra Mile to Reach Vulnerable Groups 

Richard Bowen, MSPAS, PA-C, of South Carolina is a physician assistant, and his wife is a registered nurse. His wife received her vaccination at work, but since he has not started working yet, Bowen has had to wait. Right now he is focused on getting his mother-in-law, who lives with them, an appointment.

Bowen explains, “Our local system has made it so that, if you are over 70, you can go to a local hospital website and input your information. Then they give you a follow-up call to schedule your appointment. For us, it's been a week and no call yet—just emails confirming that they received the sign-up and that she is in line for a call. With vaccine shortages now in South Carolina, it may be a while before they can get to her.”

Jillian C., New Jersey Resident

The system was not designed for our senior citizens who aren't technologically advanced. My dad doesn't use the internet or have a smartphone, and given his health issues, it is quite scary that this is something he quite literally could not have done himself.

— Jillian C., New Jersey Resident

"Health care in South Carolina is controlled by six to seven large hospital chains, which makes it so much easier to reach a large number of the population," Bowen says, adding that the hospitals own a significant portion of family practices, specialty practices, and urgent care centers around the state.

“They’ve been distributing mailers, posting on Facebook, and making phone calls, and they established a page on their websites where you can sign up for a call to schedule a vaccine and be provided an information number for those without internet access.”

Other states, like Maine, are also making it simpler for individuals without web access by setting up call centers in some counties. Until more states make the vaccine accessible for their senior population, younger family members are being encouraged to step in to make sure their loved ones have a place in line. 

What This Means for You

For those who, even with help, are finding it impossible to get an appointment, Myers recommends, “Continue to check the resource sites provided by your state. It seems that by checking back frequently at different points throughout the day, appointments continue to pop up, as more staff and supply are available.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Malani PN, Kullgren J, Solway E. National poll on healthy aging. National Archive of Computerized Data on Aging. Updated May 29, 2019. doi:10.3886/ICPSR37305.v1

  2. Pew Research Center. Americans 60 and older are spending more time in front of their screens than a decade ago. Published June 18, 2019.