‘A piece of cake’: the silver surfers who got online

Elderly people are the least likely group to get online: 42% never use the internet at all. Will the pandemic close this divide?

An afternoon with the iPad. Pic: Fiona Holland

David Jones passed the time during lockdown like many others: he’s spent most of his time online. From Zoom chats with his family to playing games, shopping on Amazon and following YouTube exercise regimes, he uses the internet “vigorously” every day.

The only reason this is notable, of course, is because Jones is nearly 90 years old. Originally from Sydenham, he now lives in a retirement community in Beckenham with his wife Marjorie, 91. He has always been technically minded – he travelled the world for 20 years as an instrument fitter for the RAF – but his introduction to computers came through Marjorie’s job as a secretary with British Gas. “I leant on her at first, but then found it interesting myself,” Jones says.

The couple bought their first PC around 30 years ago, long before Microsoft Windows: “It used this funny language … [involving] sequences of letters. We could only do basic emails, we weren’t on the internet as it was, but we worked our way into it. But now we use it to look up anything we want.”

Those digital skills meant when pandemic hit, the couple could keep in touch with their children in Cardiff and Cornwall through regular video calls (“a piece of cake”). Groceries ordered online mean they don’t have to risk the supermarket, and when Jones faced some medical issues recently he was able to research the condition himself.

David and Marjorie Jones. Pic: David Jones

But for many elderly people, the picture is not so rosy. Age is the number one way to predict whether someone can get online. Jones is among just 7 per cent of the over 70s who are able to shop or manage their money online. While almost all people aged 16 – 34 go online every day, this drops to under half of the over 75s. Forty-two per cent of the age group never use the internet at all. 

This may not have been a significant issue until the pandemic, when vital services for the elderly, like GP appointments and food deliveries, moved online. Almost one-third of the over-70s in London were told to shield (a higher proportion than any other region), potentially cutting them off from regular support services, family and friends.

This has implications for both physical and mental wellbeing.  One man in Tower Hamlets went viral after tweeting that his father was texted a link to register for a vaccine which he could not open on his flip phone. In Hackney, a survey of older residents during Covid found just 25 per cent of respondents had access to email. Almost half said they felt lonely either all or some of the time, while many had struggled to make appointments with their GP. 

The digital skills gap

There are many reasons this age group is more likely to be offline. Not being able to afford broadband or devices, a fear of scams, or disabilities like loss of sight or dexterity are all factors. But according to research by Age UK, a lack of skills is the most common issue. Nearly eight in ten over-75s who want to use the internet more said not knowing how to use computers was holding them back. 

Peter Bedford Housing Association is one of many groups trying to address the digital skills gap in east London. It runs training courses in Hackney and Tower Hamlets which teach anything from Excel to email to people from all age groups. Digital is also an important part of its programs to tackle loneliness and isolation in older people.

Many older people who attend these classes lack what we may think of as basic digital literacy, says Anjum Ahmed, Enterprises and Training Manager at PBHA: “Even downloading an app requires a certain level of skill.” Some never picked up these skills because of a lack of confidence, never having had the chance, or simply thinking computers are “not for them”, she adds. Others will have learned to use a computer at one point but lapsed, and now find it hard to keep up with rapid changes in technology. 

One PBHA client, Brian*, is in his 60s and lives in a care home, where all residents share two tablets. He had wanted to use a computer for a long time, so he could speak to his son on Zoom and join virtual church meetings. But due to his learning disability and mental health issues, he needs extensive support and repetition. He is now waiting for a Chromebook so he can join remote classes, but it has taken over a year to get to this point. Ahmed noted that Brian is unusual in having this level of support: many of their beneficiaries are even more isolated.

Motivation can be another barrier. Eighty-five per cent of older people who do not use the internet say they don’t have any interest in it. But the pandemic has shown many its benefits, like socialising and reconnecting with others. More and more have got online in the past year – almost a quarter of the over 75s now use the internet more than before the pandemic, and for a wider range of activities. 

Sheila, 70, from Beckenham, started using Zoom and FaceTime over the past year to keep in touch with her relatives, including her six-month-old granddaughter, who she has never met in person. “It has been a great, great help during these times,” she says. “You can have a chat with somebody, just ask them how they are… It would have been awful if we hadn’t had the internet this past year.”

“To be quite honest, it keeps me sane at the moment.”

Sheila, 70, Beckenham

Echoing Sheila’s experience, Ahmed says while before Covid digital inclusion was not “top of the agenda” in their work with the elderly, for those with access the online loneliness programs have become a “lifeline”. 

“People have now realised digital is not a choice… This could happen again,” Ahmed says. “We need to ensure vulnerable older people get digital skills that allow them to connect face to face and online.”

Click here to read more of the London’s Digital Divide series: #LondonsDigitalDivide.
Check back tomorrow for the next instalment, a look at the possible solutions to digital exclusion.

One Response

  1. David Jones April 1, 2021

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