Covid19 makes the digital divide loom larger for people ageing without children

“It’s all the technology isn’t it? My friends say, ‘Oh, I got my grandson to show me.’ But that’s not an option for me”

In less than a month, the UK, indeed the world has changed completely. Pubs, cafes, cinemas, libraries, indeed all our social spaces are shut, and the world has migrated online, or at least people under 65 have. Before I go on, I need to say that of course there are hundreds of thousands of older people to whom the internet is integral to their life, but the reality is, it is not the norm. The Office of National Statistics data shows that 59% of households made up of one adult over 65 are not online. People over the age of 65 who are online are still much less likely (48%) to do their shopping online compared to the national average (78%), look for health information (30% vs 54%) or access online banking (35% vs 69%).

The Centre for Ageing Better’s report “The digital age: new approaches to supporting people in later life get online” published in 2018 highlighted that one of the key factors in getting older people online was family influence

“Family members are important in enabling access to digital technology – often responsible for purchasing and setting up the technology for their loved one, regardless of whether it was wanted”

Family have often brought and installed digital technology for their older parents and although it may not have been wanted at the time, now it is probably safe to assume it is a lifeline.

Everyday more and more columns inches are spent extolling how wonderful it is that people can keep in chat, play games, have shared cocktail hours and dinner parties all through the medium of skype, zoom or house party. Meanwhile, as we are discouraged from using cash and most shops are shut, ordering food and supplies increasingly takes place online.

This digital generational divide has thrown into stark relief the position of people ageing without children in particular. For those who are not already online, the reality is for the duration of the virus lockdown, they will not get online. All the classes run by local community organisations have shut, volunteers can no longer visit to help get people online and libraries are closed.

In a world when everything is now digital by default, people ageing without children are even more isolated than others. They cannot skype or zoom others to relive feelings of isolation, take advantage of priority shopping slots from online supermarkets, pay bills online or even register as a vulnerable person as the government requires that to be done online, and they have no children to do it for them.

One thing the pandemic has shown is just how far the divide is between those who have support and those who don’t. As the British Gerontological Society have pointed out in their recent statement

“There is an implicit assumption in much discussion about COVID-19 that people will have co-resident family members to look after them, to recognise that they are ill, to keep them hydrated, to help them if they are unable to get back to bed after going to the toilet, to try to encourage some nutrition or to call an ambulance. Co-resident family members can also advocate for hospitalisation or hospital care if needed. If people live alone and no-one is permitted to see them, who will do this?”

The existence of family is an absolutely impcit assumption that has underpined all thinking around health and social care for decades. It is an assumption we must not continue to make but instead create a system that can accommodate the fact that society has changed, more and more older people do not and will not have adult children and we have to completely rehtink how older people can be supported to live their best later lives.

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