Older people and the digital world – with COVID 19

Judith Davey 

I found a quote which really struck me in an article in the Canadian version of the on-line journal “The Conversation” –

When it comes to older adults, having the liberty to choose their involvement with technology can provide independence and autonomy. When the decision is theirs to make, their quality of life tends to increase, especially regarding social isolation.

There has been a lot of discussion recently of seniors’ digital literacy and their access to digital information and services through the internet. Yet they are less likely to have the means to participate than younger people. A 2019 government report – Digital inclusion and wellbeing in New Zealand[1] – estimated access to the internet by age (and other characteristics), using several sources of data. This showed that around a quarter of retired people and over a third of people aged 75 plus had no access. Internet access clearly diminishes by age, even though oncoming cohorts will have more experience. The youngest age groups could have 99% access.
The Citizens’ Advice Bureau followed up in February 2020 with their report – Face to face with digital exclusion- which looked especially at the impacts of digital public services on inclusion and wellbeing.
In Britain, the Centre for Ageing Better (which, incidentally, shares an acronym with the Citizens’ Advice Bureau), published Covid 19 and the digital divide: Supporting digital inclusion and skills during the pandemic and beyond, bringing the discussion right up to date in July 2021. I am looking at their conclusions in this blog post.


The findings of the research, which involved a wide range or organisations, can be applied to New Zealand, especially that –

• Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, people without access to the internet were already at a significant disadvantage, but the pandemic has made this worse because many people, for the first time, have had to rely on the internet and digital devices to access support, get things done and to participate more fully in society[2]. Typical quotes were about not having a device and having to book doctor’s appointments and shopping slots or not having access to library computers to check emails. Organisations responding in the research were helping people to do new things online, including online shopping and banking; getting devices and affordable data packages and helping to set them up.

• Digital inclusion is not just about being online, it’s also about building skills and confidence. The research identified that a significant barrier to digital communication for individuals was related to self-perception and lack of motivation.

• Organisations had to adapt to continue to support users throughout the pandemic especially given strong recommendation by government to stay at home. Many moved services online or to telephone connection and there are examples of how they achieved good practice and supported people despite the challenges. Examples included upskilling volunteers, who might also be older people.

• Many older people were not aware of how they could get help if they needed it, even when support was available.

• Local organisations reported an overwhelming demand for digital support during the pandemic, especially those in places with higher deprivation. Some had been effective at reaching out to communities and people, but some reported that it has been challenging to balance the demand for a wide range of digital support with the resources available.

• Beyond COVID 19 considerations, there is evidence that remote support can be more convenient to people and more efficient for the providers. On-line services could overcome the difficulties of travel and costs, as well as enabling sessions at more convenient times. There could be reduced venue costs and less time spent travelling in-between sites, allowing organisations to reach greater numbers of people. Users with mobility problems could find that the offer of a remote session was a positive development, for example for many types of medical consultation.

• “Non-digital channels still need to be supported. Over half of the British respondents said they still didn’t want to use the internet because “I don’t feel the need to” or “it’s not for me”. Some organisations were able to continue in-person services after making their venues more COVID-19 secure; others started telephone hotline services. There are examples in the report.


The UK CAB recommended that government agencies at central and local levels should recognise and support the important digital support offered by community organisations and offer increased funding. There should be collaboration on digital inclusion projects to identify who is excluded and lead to more targeted work between the authorities and organisations.

There is also an ongoing need for devices to be made available, especially for older people. Device recycling organisations could be helpful.

Non-digital options from both the public and private sector, such as telephone or mail , need to continue for those people who cannot or choose not to be online. “ The future model should be a hybrid one with remote as well as face-to-face sessions in delivering digital skills support.”

The next blog I will look at what is being done in New Zealand to combat digital exclusion and its effects on older people.

[1] https://www.digital.govt.nz/dmsdocument/161~digital-inclusion-and-wellbeing-in-new-zealand/html [2] The UK CAB research involved people in the 50-70 age group, plus public and community-sector organisations.

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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