In this post, I am straddling two projects I’m currently working on, both sponsored by Nominet Trust. For Our Digital Planet I’m on the last week as Manager of the Internet Station, which has involved being part of an exhibition in the city centres of Brighton, Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool and Glasgow (Lloyd Davis did Brighton and Cardiff), helping non-internet users get online, and assisting others with specific problems regarding their internet use. The other project, which I’m playing a minor role in, is the Exploration of the Role of Digital Technologies for People in Later Life. This post takes some of the lessons from the former project, and seeks to apply them to the latter.
There are a whole variety of reasons why older people don’t use new technologies and the internet. A key reason, is obviously, lack of familiarity with computers. They would have left school before computers were introduced, and may have worked all their lives in jobs which didn’t require computer use or involve coming into contact with them. But there are many other barriers. One of which is trust. During Our Digital Planet, I have come across a number of older people who are implacably opposed to sharing personal details online, which specifically manifests itself in not wanting to give away financial details. I have seen people desperate to shop online because they are too frail to carry goods back from the supermarket, and needing to access paid-for genealogy sites as part of courses, but for whom fear of sharing personal details over-rides that need. They may own credit or debit cards, but still do not trust the unknown on the internet to share those details. I think we urgently need to find methods that people with such fears can use to pay online that they can trust.
Another thing that concerns me is that there is going to come a time when people realise the true implications of the forthcoming introduction of Universal Credit and that is going to be the Tipping Point which forces them online. They will do so reluctantly, and it may feel like a punishment. This could well be counter-productive. I think we have a very short window (possibly as short as 12 months) when we need to pull out all the stops to get people to see the benefits of being online to all aspects of their lives, and, in particular, that it can be real fun, like it is for most of the rest of the population. I think lots of people have a responsibility in this respect, including older people who have already embraced technology, charities and support organisations, employers, social housing providers, care homes, and health authorities.
I believe there is still a lot of work to be done in persuading the agencies and professionals working with older people that new technologies offer solutions and can be trusted. Many of them and their staff are technophobes themselves, and this is severely holding back progress. If they fail to address this issue, agencies are failing the people they profess to help, and some are putting their own futures in jeopardy, as they risk financial melt-down.
There is plenty of evidence that loneliness and isolation are major problems for people in later life; and further evidence that being online helps to address these issues. Some of the people who have approached the Our Digital Planet project, have done so because they are keen to re-establish links with friends and family. With other people, I have witnessed a dichotomy over cause and effect. They are clearly lonely people; a number of visitors have told us they have no friends. Are they lonely and isolated because they are not online, or is not being online just one manifestation of their lack of ability to keep in touch with social networks? Clearly, those who have visited us are recognising they need to do something about it. There are thousands more who do not do anything about it.