Seventy per cent of people aged over 65 in the UK have never used the internet. In a time when personal communication, social networking and the supply of services is being revolutionized by technology, older people are being largely excluded. The Government is concerned enough about this to have introduced a panoply of initiatives to overcome digital exclusion, many of which are aimed directly at older people. But the dominant reason older people say they don’t take up or haven’t sought access to the internet is that they don’t feel they need it.
Technology is a funny thing; it’s often not until it’s in the hands of users that its potential becomes apparent. The developers of mobile phones didn’t expect SMS messaging to become so central to the way that phones were used; when they developed the technology, they didn’t really know what it was for. Nor did they anticipate that trades in airtime in Africa would develop into a form of banking. Technology by itself is fundamentally uninteresting. It’s only when it gets taken up, shared, exploited and adapted that it becomes exciting.
Older people are stuck in a kind of Catch 22 with the internet: they don’t see the need for it, so don’t use it, so can’t share and develop its possibilities, so they don’t see the need for it. Before my mother ever went online, she said she didn’t want a technology that would isolate her further from the world. It was difficult for her to believe that tapping out emails to her friends and her daughters and grandchildren didn’t have to replace face-to-face contact, but could enable and enhance it.
A new report from Independent Age and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Older people, technology and community, addresses this problem, arguing powerfully that digital inclusion for its own sake is pointless. The authors’ research suggests that older people frequently believe they have nothing to gain from the internet. Resistance to new technology is exacerbated by marketing that is either aimed at the young or at the frail elderly, a group with which few people identify; by poor design (again, either aimed at the young, or involving ‘special’ equipment for older users which tends to be ugly); and by other anxieties about cost and security.
Independent Age’s research shows that older people are perfectly capable of learning to use technology. It also reports an interesting experiment carried out by OFCOM: after showing older people who were resistant to the internet a five-minute video of what they could do if they were connected, there was a significant drop in the numbers saying they would gain nothing by access to the web.
It is increasingly well documented that social isolation is one of the most pressing issues facing older people, not least because of the detrimental effects it can have on health and wellbeing. In the report, Kevin Johnson of Cisco is quoted as saying:
Technology isn’t the thing we want older people to access (or anyone else for that matter) – it is the services and capabilities and experiences that technology can enable.
Independent Age concludes that more programmes should target the interests and experiences of older people, rather than merely focusing on getting them in a position to use kit. Older people will be enthused by technology if they see that it gives them opportunities to connect with others and participate. Yet relatively few of the current programmes designed to overcome digital exclusion use technology to help older people renew or develop social contacts, or actively engage in their communities.
In addition, older people need ongoing support with their online activity, a continued human element. My mum got the point of her computer when she went for a series of one-to-one sessions at the Apple store. She had some of her tutorials sitting alongside her nine year-old grandson. It was clear that the two of them were learning in different ways (my mum took notes) and seeing different possibilities. But they definitely were both seeing possibilities, and my mum loved the attention and thoughtfulness of the young people teaching her; she also loved the learning.
The conclusion of the Independent Age report is that technology cannot replace human contact. If that is what it is perceived to be offering, it will be resisted, and properly. That would be the wrong sell, in any case, because we know technology is often the means of facilitating human contact. If programmes to get older people online are to succeed, they have to start not from kit but from people. They have to begin not with what younger people imagine the old might gain on some notional sunlit technological upland, but with their current interests, what they want and need to do here and now.