Digital inclusion and older people

Throughout this pandemic, COVID-19 has shone a light on the growing issues of digital inclusion/exclusion in the UK. Whether it is the lack of digital skills, inaccessible digital devices or simply not being able to afford the means to connect, older people have been hit hard during this critical time. For the second part of our digital inclusion series, Peter Williams, the Trust’s Network and Communications Officer, explores some of the barriers that prevent older people from building vital social connections.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to adapt and use digital technology to conduct our daily activities online. With the conversion to digital technologies, people across the UK have increased their use of the internet to work from home, shop and keep in touch with loved ones. While many have adapted, a large section of society has been greatly impacted by the digital transition. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), older people have consistently been the lowest users of the internet since its inception. The ONS report found that, of the 4 million people in the UK who have never used the internet, 84% were over the age of 65, and 62% were over the age of 75.

What this means is that a large segment of society is unable to receive vital information or connect with others online in an emerging digital world. For instance, a vast majority of services are now online, particularly healthcare services, which has now seen a surge of online patients. For many older people with pre-existing health conditions, not having the digital skills to acquire vital resources such as lifesaving prescriptions in the midst of a pandemic is extremely concerning.

There are even greater barriers for older people living in areas that are experiencing high levels of disadvantage. Unfortunately, cost and affordability of digital devices is a major barrier for some older people living in low-income households. Broadband and digital devices are more of a financial burden for older people from low socioeconomic backgrounds with people more likely to prioritise vital house utilities such as gas, electricity and essential items. The Lloyds Bank UK Digital Index highlights a stark statistic that more than half (53%) of the offline population (11 percent of the overall population) may not have the disposable income to afford an average monthly broadband bill.

Digital devices such as smartphones and tablets require a substantial amount of internet data, which can only be accessed by having a fixed-term mobile phone contract. For many older people who rely on a simpler method of communication, such as using pay as you go tariffs, they often find themselves paying even higher prices for mobile data and minutes compared to phone users who have fixed term contracts.

Within digitally marginalised groups, older people with disabilities have been particularly hard hit when it comes to connecting with others online as well as accessing vital resources. A report from ONS found that the proportion of recent internet users was lower for adults who were disabled (78 per cent), as defined by those who identified as disabled in the Equality Act, compared to those who were not disabled (95 per cent). In addition, people with a disability are three times more likely to have never used the internet. For many older people with disabilities, sending a simple email or using online platforms such as Zoom to connect with others can seem almost impossible due to inaccessible devices and websites. This leads to a lack of digital literacy skills and in turn leads to a lack of confidence.

In a world that is now becoming digitally integrated into our everyday lives, digital inclusion is needed more than ever before, particularly for older people who are more likely to experience social isolation.

Many projects funded by the Trust have adapted their activities online to support older residents to stay connected. For those unable to access digital devices, projects are providing laptops as well as training to their members to help them join in with online activities. By addressing this digital exclusion, members are now able to build or maintain social connections throughout this challenging time.

We know that there is growing evidence that having a lack of social connections significantly increases the risk of premature mortality. According the Institute of Health Equity, the effect of social isolation is comparable to smoking and more detrimental than obesity and lack of physical activity. Social connections can reduce mortality, however to achieve this during the pandemic older people must have the means to access digital devices and the skills in using technology to build or maintain social connections.

Supporting older people to, access the right skills and resources so they can maintain and build connections during this time is critical. Until this is achieved millions of older people are at risk of being marginalized and excluded from society.

For further information visit:

COVID-19 and the consequences of isolating the elderly

How the digital divide affects older adults' use of technology during COVID-19

Build Back Fairer, the COVID-19 Marmot Review

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