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Blog: Including older people in a digital world - International Day of Older Persons 2021

Published on 01 October 2021 05:08 PM

On this international day of older persons, the United Nations are looking at digital equity for all ages and are calling for a world where all can participate.

Never has the march to a digitised world been more apparent than over the last 18 months. Life changed dramatically for us all in 2020 and as face-to-face services were paused or disappeared as a result, more and more of us had to rely solely on the internet for our social interactions, shopping, banking, and work.

Now, for the majority of people living in Scotland who have a smartphone in their pocket or broadband at home, this wouldn’t have been too much of a challenge. A bit of a change, yes, but there would be a good amount of familiarity of how to do things and they had access to the means to do so.

While we have never been more connected thanks to the internet, for hundreds of thousands of people living here the events over the last 18 months has meant that they have never been more disconnected.

Around half a million over 60s in Scotland don’t have access to the internet and a third don’t have a smartphone, but the impact of the pandemic has meant that they have been at a severe disadvantage. This was true before the first lockdown in 2020 where if you wanted to bank in person, switch energy supplier, get the best deal on something, or interact with companies and public services, was becoming harder and harder if you weren’t doing so online. But the pandemic has turbo-charged the digital divide and accessing or realising your rights has been much harder without internet access.

Older people have, broadly, been impacted the most by the rapid shift to digital.

However, one of the great things we heard from many older people since the first lockdown was how they had picked up a smartphone or tablet for the first time. They had realised that the technology they didn’t really need before was now an essential to them. Video calling with family and friends, doing the shopping, paying bills and banking, gaming, all of which are becoming second nature to those digital adopters. Reading the grandchildren a bedtime story or having Sunday lunch over videocall was becoming much more common.

But how do we make sure the digital “have nots” don’t get left behind and are disadvantaged? It is important to understand that accessing the internet or having a smartphone just won’t be possible for everyone. For many thousands it will be a luxury. If you are one of the 150,000 pensioners in Scotland living in poverty or live on a low, modest and fixed income, the cost of buying a device and maintaining an internet connection is a considerable challenge. If you are disabled, you can also face barriers to accessing the internet.

In order to ensure that everyone in society can realise their rights and feel part of it, they should be included. Pushing public services, for example, to a digital by default approach penalises those without internet access, and creates far too many barriers and dead ends for them. If the only way to apply for a blue badge is online, or to manage your finances independently is via an app, and you do not have access to the internet then something is very wrong.

The feeling of being left behind, overlooked and forgotten is something which older people face every single day. In our recent Big Survey only a fifth of over 50s thought that older people were valued by society. A third believed that older people were made to feel a burden to society.

This is heart-breaking.

If you leave those most in need behind, then it can hardly be called progress. Many older people have missed out or had their rights overlooked as a result of their lack of digital access, or put another way, through the lack of non-digital options.

Yes, we need to support more older people to access the internet, feel comfortable with digital devices and to manage some of their affairs online, but it must be done with them, and at their own pace.

In order to create the necessary fairness and equity in an increasingly digital world we also must ensure that those who cannot be part of it are not overlooked and that their rights are met.

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