How are older people coping with digital technology during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Dr Nayyara TabassumDr. Nayyara Tabassum is Evidence Officer in the Centre for Ageing Better. (749 words)

Online grocery shopping has made lives very easy. With just a few clicks, you can order everything from a fridge to hand sanitisers (if there’s any in stock!). But I didn’t realise how challenging that could be for some sections of people. A couple of days back, while chatting with my 76-year-old neighbour John, he mentioned how difficult it was for him to place online grocery orders. As a first-time online banking user, his card activity was flagged as suspicious and by the time he managed to get verified, he lost his delivery slot.

There are so many older people like John who have had to rely on using the internet for the very first time during the COVID-19 pandemic. Banks need to make the authentication processes easier, especially for first time digital shoppers. According to 2019 ONS figures on internet users, almost half the UK population of people at 75 and over (47%) have never used the internet. The fact that John uses the internet at all is quite fortunate. The good news is that internet use in the 65-74 age group is increasing – it rose from 52% in 2011 to 83% in 2019, and the current situation is likely to speed that increase.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has made us all realise something – it is the power of digital technology. With the help of technology, employees are working from home, having online meetings with colleagues via Zoom or Teams, keeping themselves entertained watching Netflix, doing shopping online for food and medicines and keeping in touch with loved ones who are isolating through online mutual aid groups.

While many are benefiting or coping with the crisis through the help of digital technology, there is a large section of older people who are at risk of missing out. According to the 2018 UK Consumer Digital Index, 8% of UK population could perform zero out of five given digital tasks, with over 65s making up more than three quarters of those (76%). Those digital tasks included: 1) creating something new from existing online images, music or video or audio, 2) solve a problem you have with a device or digital service using online help, 3) verify sources of information you found online, 4) buy and install an apps on a device and 5) download/save a photo you found online.

These tasks are fairly simple for many, and for those who are digitally proficient these digital skills will be helpful to cope during the crisis. But can we imagine how incredibly difficult it must be for someone who has never been online to survive and cope during COVID-19 when so many elements of everyday life now require the use of digital technology? While many older people are extremely tech-savvy, we know that those in later life are less likely to be online than younger people. In 2019, of the 4 million people in the UK who have never used the internet, 94% were aged 55 and over, 84% were over the age of 65, and 62% were over the age of 75.

We need to help and support older people to be well-equipped to deal with digital technology and its effects during the pandemic. On 24 April 2020, NHSX, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG)  announced 18 innovative digital solutions being awarded up to £25,000 under the TechForce19 challenge. The aim of these innovative digital solutions is to help people who may be particularly vulnerable or isolated during the coronavirus outbreak, including new parents, the homeless, unpaid carers, young people and cancer patients. Out of 18 digital solutions, there is just one that specifically caters to older people – Just Checking. Just Checking supplies activity monitoring systems, used by local authorities to help with assessment of older people in their homes, for social care.

While this is a worthwhile innovation, we also need initiatives to empower older people to be active technology users – not just passive recipients of technology. We need more concerted and thoughtful efforts to help older people with digital technology and making their lives easier, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Government bodies, banks and other stakeholders must be aware of the issue of digital inclusion of older people and must work together to support older people through the unique digital challenges they face during this crisis.

Dr. Nayyara Tabassum is Evidence Officer in the Centre for Ageing Better.