Elderly and digital

Closing the gap in the elderly and digital divide

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The rapid digitalisation of all aspects of civilisation is leaving many elderly people excluded. What can be done to help?

In Spain, Carlos San Juan de Laordon, a 78-year-old Parkinson’s patient, was frustrated by banks that were happy to hold his pension and savings but had closed all their branches, forcing all transactions online. So, he launched a petition. De Laordon was comfortable using internet services like Skype but because of his tremors, found the dexterity involved in banking apps too difficult.

The retired urologist’s ‘I’m Old, not Stupid’ cyber protest quickly garnered more than 600,000 signatures, and perhaps more importantly, gained widespread media coverage in Spain and abroad. Spain’s economic ministry then invited Dr de Laordon to attend the signing of a pact with the country’s main banks to do more for elderly customers who help keep them solvent.

Here in the UK, author and broadcaster Pete Paphides gained masses of support after tweeting about his late father’s struggle to operate an online parking app when attending a memorial service for a friend in Birmingham. He parked anyway as he didn’t use it, but then after receiving a fine, became anxious as he couldn’t work out how to pay it.

No matter how forward-thinking the elderly person may be in society, the rapid digitalisation of all aspects of civilisation is still leaving many of them excluded.

From banking and parking to basic local authority services such as following up missed rubbish collections, they have all moved online, a process vastly speeded up during the pandemic. Between 2012 and 2021, the total number of bank and building society branches in the UK fell by 34 per cent, according to the House of Commons Library.  

“There are people in their sixties who used computers at work,” says Abigail Wood, chief executive of the charity Age UK. “They told us they were happy because there were people to ask. But once they have retired, if something goes wrong they find it’s not the same when there isn’t John from the IT team to help.”

The pandemic and lockdown led to a speeding up of a digitalised society and economy. Video conferencing companies like Zoom made much of grandchildren connecting with delighted grandparents. The reality of senior citizens’ experience with computers during lockdown is different.

“Digital exclusion was already a problem, but when we went into lockdown we saw that many older people became more familiar with digital technology and the benefits it can offer to them.

“At a time when home deliveries were a life-saver for many, a lot of seniors had never put their bank cards into websites before. It’s not that hard to do, but in lockdown there was no one to sit next to you and show you how to deal with it,” says Wood.

According to a 2021 report by Age UK, which looked at effects of lockdown on the use of the internet in London, only 60 per cent of the over-65s used the internet every day, falling to just 40 per cent by the time they are 75, meaning there are more over-75s who don’t use it routinely than those who do.

Although lockdown familiarised many older people with new online services such as home deliveries and video calls according to the Age UK report, seven per cent of over-65s and ten per cent of over-75s reported using the internet less, possibly due to the closure of public places that offered internet access, digital skills training or both. More than 200,000 Londoners over the age of 75 do not use the internet at all at a time when home deliveries soared amongst the rest of the population.

In the US, a recent report by AARP (formerly called the American Association of Retired Persons) found that whilst 83 per cent of seniors between the age of 64 and 74 used the internet at least once a week, more than half said they felt they needed a better grasp of devices purchased during the pandemic, and more than a third did not feel confident.

“Traditionally, technology companies have shied away from creating technology for older adults. Younger generations are born with a mobile phone in their hands. It’s easier for them to identify a workaround for technology shortcomings, whereas it’s challenging to build a right user interface targeting older adults,” says California-based engineer Kuldip Pabla, vice president of engineering with the US email security firm Valimail, and one the world’s leading experts on technology for the third age. “Many may not be able to register haptics with their dry fingers, while others may have problems glaring at the screen with their deteriorating eyesight, and most are sceptical about Alexa always spying on them.”

One of the first companies to realise that products need to be adapted for older people is the Swedish phone company Doro. They found that whilst young people are comfortable using touchscreens on interfaces, this is not the case for many elderly people.

“For those less comfortable using newer technology or for individuals that have dexterity issues and wider requirements, the shift away from pushbutton interfaces can pose an issue,” says Yucel Yasar, director of category management at Doro.

He says the adoption of touchscreens has coincided with the addition of new applications, which now come as part of standard mobile product portfolios.

“While some senior users may be quick to adapt, these features must also be optimised to ensure they are accessible to all segments of the population,” says Yasar.

Doro has designed its phones with adjustable larger icon and text sizes, helpful when eyesight deteriorates. The phones are made with easy-to-grip material and are hearing-aid compatible.

The phone also includes a signature Response button that, when pressed in an emergency, alerts pre-connected loved ones that the Doro user needs assistance, whilst simultaneously sending the user’s location via GPS in the app (on GPS-compatible phones).

Whilst improved phone design is certainly useful, other newer technologies such as voice show huge potential, if senior citizens receive the right training.

“When you educate senior people about Alexa for example – how you can switch it off if need be or enable it when you want to use it – they grow more comfortable using it,” says California-based engineer Kuldip Pabla, vice president of engineering with the US email security firm Valimail and one the world’s leading experts on technology for the third age.

“Especially among older populations, voice is the best channel for communication with technology. Wouldn’t it be great if you could tell your computers to send an email? That would make life so much easier for many people.”

Lockdown also helped bring into stark relief one of the biggest challenges to encouraging older adults to use the internet – fear of becoming a victim to fraud.

According to the National Cyber Security Centre, experts saw a fifteen-fold rise in phishing and other cyber scams during lockdown, including fake NHS links inviting people to be vaccinated.

Older people have good reason to fear becoming a victim of fraud. In the US, a 2020 FBI report found that older adults lost almost a billion dollars in scams in 2020 with an average loss of over $9,000.

There are many reasons scammers target older adults, according to Pabla. Firstly, many have significant savings in their accounts, are less likely to report a crime, and often experience declines in their cognitive skills, making processing new knowledge more challenging.

Valimail is planning to extend its DMARC (Domain Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance) technology, currently used by business, to individuals, enabling older citizens to be reassured about emails they send and receive.

DMARC tells you whether to trust an email, and if it cannot verify an email’s source, it’s not trusted. “E-mail recipients don’t receive an explanation – but a little indication that an incoming email has been verified is less technical and enough to reassure them,” says Pabla.

One of the first solutions to solving the digital gap amongst the elderly is to increase training and make technology more available for older people. In the US, Cyber-Seniors and Generations on Line, have offered free online training in technology for seniors nationwide.

Age UK also runs digital inclusion classes, but more needs to be done, especially in new technologies such as voice.

“There are a lot of older people who would like to use internet more,” says Age UK’s Wood. “We need a lot more training provisions. We need this to be on a big scale – it needs to be a right, not just charitable provision.”.

Wood says that in London, for example, there are a lot of less wealthy pensioners who have done their budget to a penny, something only likely to get worse with rising inflation.

“We need to look at the financial barrier to this – equipment is not cheap, broadband is not cheap,” she says.

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