Tackling digital exclusion in older people

30th Sep 2021
Mental health in later life

It is International Day of Older Persons on 1 October 2021

This year’s theme set by the UN is ‘Digital Equity for All Ages’. In this blog we are going to discuss the issue of digital exclusion in older people and set out what we are doing about it.

What do we mean by digital exclusion?

Digital exclusion is where a section of the population doesn’t have access to the use of digital communications to help them fully participate in society.

Digital exclusion during the pandemic

One of the feelings millions of us experienced during the coronavirus pandemic was loneliness. In our combined efforts to stay safe and save lives, our usual ways of seeing family, friends or just familiar faces were put on pause.

Many of us turned to digital means of communication to connect with the people in our lives. Whether that was arranging a virtual movie night with a friend, a quiz night with family or simply a phone call with a work colleague.

However, the pandemic showed us that access to these digital forms of communication isn’t available or accessible to everyone. The issue of digital exclusion in later life has become starkly apparent: research by the Centre for Aging Better emphasised the significant digital divide among 50–70-year-olds and how this has worsened because of Covid. 

Edward, one of the participants of the project with his tablet device

To illustrate how digital access declines in older demographics, the report highlights ONS (The Office of National Statistics) figures which show the state of digital exclusion in the UK:

Why do some older people become digitally excluded?

There are many reasons why older people can be digitally excluded. The inequalities in our society mean that those with the most wealth have far more economic resources, social support and knowledge to be digitally included. For a variety of reasons, later life housing schemes also struggle to provide Wi-Fi. The pandemic has taught us that digital access is essential, not an optional extra.

What do we mean by digital inclusion?

Digital inclusion is about working with communities to address issues of opportunity, access, knowledge and skill in relation to using technology and, in particular, the internet.1

Digital inclusion is about confidence as well as access

Digital inclusion is more than just being able to get online; it’s also about having the confidence to learn new digital skills. When we have the confidence to connect with others, or access services through the digital world, this can benefit our mental health. Digital access could include accessing GP surgeries or streaming services to watch your favourite shows.

We need to ensure that ageing is an inclusive experience

Much as we shy away from it, we are an aging society. There is a growing need for more projects which offer well-resourced digital inclusion packages, with tailor-made training and support. By 2050 it is projected that one in four people will be aged 65 and over. In 2019 it was approximately one in five. We see digital inclusion as priority for older people. We also need streaming services to make more programmes which challenge stereotypical views of ageing.

What is the Mental Health Foundation doing to address digital exclusion?

We have launched the Picture This project. This is a unique digital inclusion package and course. It gives people a new tablet, tailored training, ongoing support, and unlimited data for three months.

At the heart of the Picture This project are 12 weekly virtual creative sessions. We know that sometimes expressing emotions creatively is easier than using words.

In the virtual creative sessions, art facilitators bring different themes to the weeks and talk about the work of a diverse range of artists. People taking part receive a bag full of high-quality art materials. The group then visually explore issues around identity, passions and how they are managing emerging from the pandemic.

Whilst the course focuses on creative art and drawing, the groups also learn basic IT skills. These skills range from how to send an e-mail, how to connect with family and friends remotely and attend events to how to use Facebook and other social media channels, and how to order shopping online.

Picture This participant Phyllis (centre) with facilitators Gosia (left) and Mia (right)

It has been life-changing for some:

“I spoke with family on the device, and it was as though they were in the room; it was incredible. I have also joined Facebook and connected with people who I haven’t seen in over 40 years.” – Edward (65)

“My daughter lives in Ghana and we have connected online. She is telling her neighbours she can’t believe her mother is now online and learning at the age of 90.” – Phyllis (90)

The Picture This project is both improving people’s mental health by increasing their social connections and by building their skills and confidence so that they can get satisfaction from the digital world.

Find out more about the Picture This project

Help us to continue to fight digital exclusion

Donate now and help us to continue our vital work with people in later life. Poor mental health is not an inevitable part of ageing – people can and do live well in later life.

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