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Why digital inclusion matters more now for older people than ever before

There has been a fundamental shift in how we need to view getting the older population online.

It had been a nice-to-have – an alternative way to be connected to friends and family, access services, go shopping and enjoy talks, music, drama and learning.

But the requirement to stay at home during the pandemic has accelerated a trend that was already happening. Shops on the high street have closed with some becoming online outlets only. Medical appointments have shifted to phone and video. Banks and other financial organisations have found their phone lines overwhelmed and asked customers to use online services instead.

The change has been fast and clear. And with the cost savings associated with not having physical buildings to staff, many organisations will be reluctant to return to offering face-to-face meetings with customers.

Who’s not online?

In the UK there are 2.6 million people still offline, with 1.5 million households without internet access.  Many are older and have never used the internet. Some 50% of over 75s are believed to be non-users of the internet.

Health and welfare play a part too. When the NHS wrote to 1.4m people about vulnerability and shielding at the start of pandemic, it calculated that about half of those people weren’t online. The figures suggest that those most in need of social and medical support can’t access these services.

What do we mean by digital inclusion?

Dr Emma Stone of the Good Things Foundation, which aims to ensure everyone benefits from the digital world, considers that digital inclusion means more than technology. For people to be part of the digital world they need:

  • Access and affordability
  • Skills and safety
  • Confidence and motivation

If people are not included, they are excluded from social participation in communities, the growing number of services that they are expected to access online – including health, housing and wellbeing services, benefits, payments and money management.

Access and affordability

Mobile or broadband?

A quick tour of hobby groups on FB, for example, shows that many older people are already adept at using social groups online and confident with sharing photos, posting and commenting, and downloading files. However, it’s also clear that many are doing so from their smartphones, which means they may not be using the internet cost efficiently.

Mobile data is almost certainly more expensive than broadband connections, because it’s a scarce resource. Research has shown that most smartphone use is within a building, so if your parent doesn’t have broadband and wifi, it may well be worth investigating the cost of installation and use, even if all they do is chat.

Getting the best deal

There are broadband deals available that might suit a light user. BT offers a Home Essential deal that it says is priced at just above cost. This, incidentally, is another good reason to claim Pension Credit, even if the credit itself only amounts to a few pennies. Receipt of Pension Credit opens the door to eligibility to numerous benefits, including this BT package. If you’re not eligible for this deal, Broadband Genie publishes the cheapest broadband deals on the market each month.

Skills and safety

Training for older people was available before in-person groups were closed last summer, and it’s to be hoped that these re-open. Your local AgeUK group may run sessions, and there are projects associated with the Good Things Group.

One of the biggest challenges in introducing new users to the internet is to keep them safe from malware, scammers and the onslaught of attacks from criminals eager to take their money. It will help if you keep up-to-date with the rapidly evolving threats and protect your parents where you can. And you can sign them up to services such as the Which? scam alert service and local police neighbourhood alerts.

Confidence and motivation

Age has a great deal to do with confidence around technology. The older the person, the less likely they are to have been a computer user at work, and don’t have the skills and confidence that come with it. Starting from scratch is a huge mountain to climb, and people will need more than a few lessons to make the most of digital life. Even in supported environments, such as housing associations or in-home carers, staff may not have the skills themselves to be useful helpers.

More informal supportive communities sprang up doing the pandemic, and it’s to be hoped that these continue to flourish. But even if they do, continuing to handhold older relatives and friends to use the internet, and do so safely, is an important role for the family.

What do we mean by digital connectivity?

While we often think about digital connectivity as having the devices and the network to go online proactively for shopping, social networking or to pay our bills, the digital world includes much more.

The rapid rise of smart home technology, remote meter readings, and many more services use digital technology in the background, often without user intervention. These require the infrastructure to be available in the home, and that’s another reason why broadband and wifi become important even for those who are convinced they don’t need to be online.

Imminent phone network shift to digital

It’s not been massively well publicised but home phone networks are moving to digital and closing down their analogue services by 2025.

We’ve heard of users being given just 24 hours’ notice that their home monitoring systems will no longer work because they’re analogue-based. If you parent has an alert system at home, now’s the time to check with the provider that they are prepared for the switchover, as once analogue’s gone, it won’t be back.

Find when the exchanges that affect you and your relatives will be shifting to digital.

Digital infrastructure to and in the home as well as the technology to access the internet, are rapidly become must-haves for people of all ages. Helping older relatives to understand and use new technologies with confidence is an important role for their families and the community.


Article written by Kathy Lawrence, editor at When They Get Older

Photo by Marcus Aurelius from Pexels

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