Older People and “Digital Skills”

Some more thoughts on the debate about older people and “digital skills”, further to my post of a week or so ago.

As well as saddling the objective of getting older people online with a prohibitive price tag of £875m, the debate is also being increasingly framed around “teaching” people “digital skills”. I believe, from my own experience of working with older people, that this is the wrong way to approach it.

Now, if I am an older person, retired from the labour market, why would I see a need for someone to “teach” me “digital skills”? Surely that is for someone who needs to do such things as part of their job?

My preference is that, rather than employing “teachers” to “teach” digital skills, we need to find ways of incentivising people who love digital technologies to pass on that love to people who have yet to come to the party. This, I believe, would both be a more effective approach, and would be likely to be delivered much more cheaply than £875m. Digital technologies can be fun, life enhancing, and socially beneficial. People who are not on board are missing out on all of these benefits, and we need to show them that.

One of the things I don’t get when working with older people is the tendency I have witnessed of many, professionals and others, to treat them like children. I think this contributes to their exclusion from digital technologies, with some thinking it is their duty to protect them from new and scary things. New technologies can both open up older people’s horizons to new experiences and connections, and be used to remind younger people that older people were once young themselves. We can use video, audio and photography to enable older people to tell their life stories which can have positive benefits for themselves and can act as a signal to others that these are people who have been active, with varied roles.

And I also don’t get the obsession with the 1930s and before which some people working with older citizens have when setting the context for events. Someone who is 75 now was 15 in 1954. As most people’s musical and social preferences are set in their teenage years, they are far more likely to be Rock ‘n’ Roll fans than to have an appreciation for Vera Lynn or George Formby.

Older people are becoming increasingly digital confident. But both the ability to continue to participate in the digital world, and to be introduced to it for the first time are threatened by “gatekeepers” who want to protect them from it, and by the system’s inability to cater for such needs. Thus, a lot of older people spend time in hospital, where, as I told BBC Radio 4’s “You and Yours” programme, there is unlikely to be free wifi to connect them to the outside world. The interview from this programme is below.


And the lack of digital infrastructure in care homes should be a national scandal. Those which are trying to address this, like the home in Newport which I visited last year (see video below), are all too rare.

6 thoughts on “Older People and “Digital Skills”

  1. One of the main comments that I have about TDC14 is that how struck I was by the *worldview* of the over 50’s as being digitally excluded, it was only the ‘cool kids’ who were digitally ‘native’ and the next generation were going to make all the big advances. Digital (or whatever term) you want to use has been here for decades now.

    I have been on the ‘net since 96, using computers before that and thinking about big data even before that. Why is it that we are nearly twenty years down the road and we’re still only dipping our toes into this sort of thing? Why are we stuck in the *must go on a course* mode to learn how to do something – why can’t we just do? Most people don’t go on paper & decorating courses before they start to decorate so they?

    I ended up being grumpy by it at the conference – indeed I tweeted something about it being ageist…

  2. Yet again excellent comments. Have you had a chance to read my piece in the British Medical Journal of April last year entitled “Paperless records are not in the best interest of every patient” since I think it is very relevant to your current thinking. So much so that it is overdue for us to contact each other directly.

  3. Regarding care homes I totally agree. It was only with great difficulty, and no help from the care home itself, that my mother on her 100th birthday was able to use her iPad to communicate with her grand and great grandchildren in Australia, New Zealand and Vancouver.

    Have you joined you local surgery Patient Participation Group (PPG) because I see these as having significant potential in matters like this. At present for example I am making a collection of all the similar but different demographic, health and social care forms that we now have to fill in, with the intention of presenting the collection to the PPG.. I have become increasingly convinced that pressure from the public via PPGs etc will be the only way to get out of the mess we are in at present towards any kind of sensible future. Recent reports indicate that major NHS hospitals each now have between 2-300 incompatible patient care related databases and with no-one knowing how to get out of the mess

  4. Its a shame that the people in charge of funding are bamboozled by the tick box brigade. The ones who have to put people through senseless ‘courses’ in order to tick their silly boxes. I agree with John, we have to Enable people to do what they want to do, not show them how to pass tests. I think older folk have the brains to adapt very easily once they are helped to see how simple it all is. Providing they have a decent connection that is… which sadly millions don’t. And government don’t realise that yet. They think everyone is on superfast. or superfarce more like.

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