The social isolation we find ourselves experiencing has led us to rely heavily on the internet for social interaction, learning, exercise, shopping and much more! However, only 43%[1] of people over the age of 75 are online, so how are those who are not connected with the rest of the world surviving in self-isolation? Asks Jenna Griffin, BCS Policy Programmes Manager.

During this pandemic, I’m sure we have all been online to look at healthcare information, however 57% of this vulnerable group are unable to log onto any device to see how best to protect themselves. In a time when social distancing is at the forefront of everyone’s minds, over half of those aged 75 and above are unable to see the faces of their loved ones, because they are digitally excluded from the growing online community.

Digital poverty

COVID-19 has highlighted digital poverty to the extreme. There may be several reasons for older generations not being online, but finances certainly appear to play a significant part in the situation. Of those aged 75+, nearly two-thirds who are in the highest socio-economic groups use the internet compared to just a fifth in the lowest socio-economic group[2].

Through using technology to replace those human interactions we normally have with our loved ones, we know that seeing their faces is a major contribution in reducing our stress levels and improving our mental health, especially if we live alone.

Arguably, over the past few weeks, a large proportion of the advice given to the nation from the government has been guided by or directed towards online information, meaning missed opportunities for the older, more vulnerable members of society. Isolation for the over 70’s will naturally be a lonely time, especially if an individual lives alone, which is where being an active “silver surfer” would allow them more accessible communication with their loved ones.

At a time like this, it really proves the importance of digital skills and how much more involved in a new way of living the over 70’s could be if they had the skills and the financial stability to invest in smart phones, tablets or laptops/computers.

Unintended consequences

So, what are the unintended consequences? In the current predicament, isolation and loneliness remain two very separate things; nonetheless, being in isolation - but connected and online - can help prevent loneliness and help create a better state of mental health. A large proportion of our over 70’s population are immediately alienated from a world of connectivity, simply because they are not equipped with the right skills.

Removing coronavirus from the equation, currently in the UK, 9% of older people feel cut off from society[3], this is an area where digital inclusion could potentially make a difference to loneliness and mental health. 17% of the older population report they are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week[4].

This is a real opportunity for the government, organisations, families and friends to change this and ensure the UK’s elderly have access to the devices and basic digital skills that would enable them to navigate uncertain times like now, ensuring they can experience the best mental health possible and feel supported.

The importance of digital

The Chair of the BCS Society Board and Healthcare Management Consultant, Kathy Farndon, highlights the importance of digital for the vulnerable in society:

‘The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted how useful access to technology is and the importance of digital literacy. This is particularly relevant since the government announced the new measures where there is a danger that people who are older, disabled, have mental health issues or are otherwise disadvantaged, may feel isolated and incredibly lonely. As BCS’ primary goal is “To Make IT Good for Society” we urge the government and organisations in our industry to provide digital opportunities for these groups of people to ensure they are involved and part of the online community.’

Farndon continues, ‘There are many stories relating to support groups being set up around the country and we would encourage everyone to do their part in using their digital skills to help upskill their communities and improve digital literacy, especially for the vulnerable groups in Society’.

Not only would this benefit people’s skills to communicate when they might not be with their friends and family, but being digitally able can improve our mental health and wellbeing, especially as we get older.

Social distancing seems to have drawn the significance of a “digital divide” into sharp focus; therefore, BCS would like to see government addressing this vulnerable group and helping to educate them so they have the digital skills to ensure they can always remain informed and connected with the rest of the world.

Everyone’s responsibility

However, this is not just the government’s responsibly, but also that of the family and friends of the older generation. As the Chartered Institute for IT, BCS knows the difference that technology can make to one’s mental health when used responsibly and correctly. Loved ones should ensure their elderly relatives can connect with others through video calling and messaging services, download audio books and even games to provide entertainment through online family games nights!

To make IT good for society, we should all consider the benefits digital skills lessons could make to our older relatives, as these skills could be invaluable to their mental health and wellbeing, both now and in the future.

Remaining connected through these uncertain times is what’s keeping many of us going, knowing that we can see our families faces through Facetime, Zoom or Teams!