Bridging the gap between older people and the digital divide


The rapid digitization of all aspects of civilization excludes many older people. What can we do to help?

In Spain, Carlos San Juan de Laordon, a 78-year-old patient with Parkinson’s disease, was frustrated with banks that were happy to hold his pension and savings but had closed all their branches, forcing all transactions online. So he started a petition. De Laordon was comfortable using internet services like Skype, but because of his tremors, he found the dexterity involved in banking apps too difficult.

The retired urologist’s cyber-protest “I’m old, not stupid” quickly garnered over 600,000 signatures, and perhaps more importantly, garnered widespread media coverage in Spain and abroad. Spain’s economy ministry then invited Dr de Laordon to witness the signing of a pact with the country’s major banks to do more for elderly customers that help them stay solvent.

Here in the UK, author and broadcaster Pete Paphides has won massive support after tweeting about his late father’s struggle to operate an online parking app when he attended a memorial service for a friend in Birmingham. He parked anyway as he wasn’t using it, but after getting a fine he got anxious as he didn’t know how to pay it.

No matter how forward-thinking the older person may be in society, the rapid digitization of all aspects of civilization still leaves many of them excluded.

From banking and parking services to basic local authority services such as tracking missed rubbish collections, they have all moved online, a process dramatically accelerated during the pandemic. Between 2012 and 2021, the total number of bank branches and building societies in the UK fell by 34%, according to the Library of the House of Commons.

“There are people in their 60s who used computers at work,” says Abigail Wood, chief executive of the charity Age UK. “They told us they were happy because there were people to ask. But once they retire, if something goes wrong, they discover that it’s not the same when there isn’t John from the IT team to help them.

The pandemic and lockdown have led to an acceleration of a digitized society and economy. Video conferencing companies like Zoom made a big deal of grandkids connecting with delighted grandparents. The reality of seniors’ experience with computers during lockdown is different.

“Digital exclusion was already a problem, but when we entered lockdown, we saw that many older people became familiar with digital technology and the benefits it can offer them.

“At a time when home deliveries were a lifeline for many, many seniors had never put their bank cards on websites before. It’s not that hard to do, but during lockdown it’s there was no one to sit next to you and show you how to deal with it,” says Wood.

According to a 2021 report by Age UK, which looked at the effects of the lockdown on internet use in London, only 60% of over-65s used the internet every day, falling to just 40% by the time they are 75, meaning there are more over 75s who don’t use it regularly than those who do.

Although the lockdown has familiarized many older people with new online services such as home deliveries and video calls according to the Age UK report, 7% of over-65s and 10% of over-75s said they use Internet less, perhaps due to the closure of public places offering internet access, digital skills training or both. More than 200,000 Londoners over the age of 75 do not use the internet at all at a time when home deliveries have exploded among the rest of the population.

In the United States, a recent report by AARP (formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons) found that while 83% of people aged 64 to 74 used the Internet at least once a week, more than half said that they needed to better understand the devices purchased during the pandemic, and more than a third did not feel confident.

“Traditionally, tech companies have been reluctant to create technology for older people. Younger generations are born with a mobile phone in their hands. It’s easier for them to identify a workaround for technology gaps, while it’s hard to create a good user interface targeting older people,” says California engineer Kuldip Pabla, vice president of engineering from the American e-mail security company Valimail, and one of the world leaders. leading experts in third-age technology. “Many may not be able to register haptics with their dry fingers, while others may have trouble staring at the screen with their eyesight deteriorating, and most are skeptical that that Alexa is still spying on them.”

One of the first companies to realize that products should be age-friendly was Swedish telephone company Doro. They found that while young people are comfortable with touch screens on interfaces, many older people are not.

“For those who are less comfortable with new technologies or for people who have dexterity issues and broader requirements, moving away from push-button interfaces can be a problem,” says Yucel Yasar, director of category management at Doro.

He says the adoption of touchscreens has coincided with the addition of new apps, which are now part of standard mobile product portfolios.

“While some senior users may adapt quickly, these features also need to be optimized to ensure they are accessible to all segments of the population,” Yasar explains.

Doro has designed its phones with larger, adjustable icons and text sizes that are useful when eyesight deteriorates. The phones are made with an easy-to-grip material and are hearing aid compatible.

The phone also includes a signature response button which, when pressed in an emergency, alerts pre-connected loved ones that the Doro user requires assistance, while simultaneously sending the user’s location via GPS in app (on GPS-enabled phones).

While better phone design is certainly helpful, other newer technologies such as voice have huge potential, if seniors are given the right training.

“When you educate seniors on Alexa for example – how you can turn it off when needed or turn it on when you want to use it – they feel more comfortable using it,” says California engineer Kuldip Pabla, vice president of engineering. with US email security company Valimail and one of the world’s leading experts in technology for the elderly.

“Especially among older populations, voice is the best channel for communicating with technology. Wouldn’t it be great if you could tell your computers to send an email? It would make life so much easier for a lot of people.

The lockdown has also helped highlight one of the biggest challenges in encouraging older people to use the internet: the fear of being the victim of fraud.

According to the National Cyber ​​​​Security Center, experts have seen a fifteenfold increase in phishing and other cyber scams during the lockdown, including fake NHS links urging people to get vaccinated.

Seniors have good reason to fear becoming victims of fraud. In the United States, a 2020 FBI report found that seniors lost nearly $1 billion to scams in 2020, with an average loss of over $9,000.

There are many reasons why scammers target older people, according to Pabla. First, many have significant savings in their accounts, are less likely to report a crime, and often experience a decline in their cognitive abilities, which makes it more difficult to process new knowledge.

Valimail plans to extend its DMARC (Domain Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance) technology, currently used by businesses, to individuals, allowing older citizens to be reassured about the emails they send and receive.

DMARC tells you whether to trust an email, and if it can’t verify the source of an email, it’s untrustworthy. “Email recipients don’t get an explanation, but a little indication that an incoming email has been verified is less technical and enough to reassure them,” says Pabla.

One of the first solutions to closing the digital divide among seniors is to increase education and make technology more accessible to seniors. In the United States, Cyber-Seniors and Generations on Line offered free online technology training for seniors across the country.

Age UK also organizes digital inclusion courses, but there is still a lot to do, especially in new technologies such as voice.

“There are a lot of older people who would like to use the internet more,” says Wood from Age UK. “We need a lot more training provisions. We need this to be on a large scale – it needs to be a right, not just a charitable provision”.

Wood says that in London, for example, there are plenty of less affluent pensioners who have budgeted for pennies, which will only get worse with rising inflation.

“We have to look at the financial barrier to that – equipment isn’t cheap, broadband isn’t cheap,” she says.

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