Older People and the Internet

1. Using and managing the internet

The internet – you can’t get away from it. It pervades our daily lives – shopping, banking, interacting with central government and local agencies. How many times a day are we told “visit our web-site……;” “see www… for more information;” “apply on-line”? All those offers and opportunities which are only available through the internet. What does all this mean for us older people, who were brought up and lived most of our lives in the pre-digital age?

No wonder that use of the internet falls off with age. Statistics indicate that 61% of New Zealanders aged 65-74 use the internet, while only 32% of those aged 75+ do so. This compares to over 90% for people under 45.

We can get some answers from recent research done by Margaret Richardson of the University of Waikato . She talked in depth to 50 people aged 65 plus in the Waikato region and also to organisations which serve older people.
Long term users of the internet among Margaret’s interviewees had integrated it into their lives and saw it as a useful and convenient tool. It enhanced their contact with family and friends, especially when they lived at a distance. “Skype brings me closer to my overseas family,” said one woman. “Letter writing is not something the grandchildren do,” said another.

It helped them to participate in leisure activities and community groups, and made it easier to access goods, services, and information, often saving a lot of time in the process. “Doing my genealogy would be so much more work without the Internet.” Some said the Internet was a ‘cool tool’ giving them a modern and up-to-date image.

How did they manage internet use?

Despite these advantages, users were aware of the potential downside of the internet, including risks to privacy and data security. These risks were reduced by three strategies.

Firstly, they were selective in the means they used for making contact and transactions. Sometimes it is better to meet face-to-face with someone rather than seeing email as the only way to communicate. Some preferred telephone banking over internet banking. Some ‘followed’ their family on Facebook rather than posting information on Facebook themselves. It was a question of ‘the right tool for the job’.
Secondly, they self-regulated their internet use, monitoring time spent online, so that they did not become addicted to it, which can be a matter of concern, or spend too much time at the keyboard instead of going out.

Thirdly, older people often recruit knowledgeable family members as a ‘help desk’ to ensure their online safety and to help them improve their technology and their skills.

These defensive strategies limited use of the internet but also ensured that interviewees used it to the extent they felt comfortable and in control.

What made it easier for them?

Firstly, people need to be aware of the usefulness of the Internet and have a desire to use it. This may require some determination, computers can be scary and technophobia is not uncommon. But having user-friendly equipment and websites helps a lot. Also important is having others who can provide encouragement as well as financial, technical, and moral support in using the technology – often younger relatives.

Organisations have also helped and the research provides several examples. Library staff can help older people with web searching and e-books. Hamilton Public Library provides volunteer computer mentors. Health and social welfare agencies have asked older customers to test websites for usability and to develop appropriate digital products.

In the “digital age”, the Internet cannot be ignored and its use probably cannot be reversed. It is a low cost channel for organisations to communicate with their customers and members; an important medium for individuals to access information and services. For many older people, especially those with physical disabilities, it can help to maintain social connectedness and a sense of belonging. A research participant who is no longer able to walk said “Online, I can shop, I can bank, I can transfer money to pay people … It’s giving me my life back.”

The New Zealand Government is moving to more digitally-based operations while it cuts back on non-digital service delivery channels. Internet usage is not only a practice; it is also becoming an expectation for everyone. But what about those, such as many older people, who do not use the internet? I will look at this in my next blog.

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About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit www.ageconcern.org.nz
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