New research by digital charity Good Things Foundation in partnership with the Centre for Ageing Better, has identified an urgent need for new approaches to helping people in later life get online. The research urges government, as well as companies and organisations, to ensure that the most vulnerable are not locked out of essential services and benefits as technology continues to evolve and more and more services become ‘digital by default’.
A key finding is that, too often, engaging people in later life with ‘digital inclusion’ strategies starts with ‘digital’ – focusing on achieving basic digital skills, teaching older people to use the internet as an end in and of itself.
However, the evidence shows that digital is just a means to a plethora of other benefits – which could be many different things, like paying bills and claiming benefits, or learning about the world and buying gifts online. It all depends on what that person truly finds useful, and how the internet adds value that they would otherwise have missed.
Ultimately, not everyone has a pressing need to do things online, no matter how convenient it might seem to others. And we can’t forget that while some people might benefit hugely from greater digital access, they might not realise it, or might have any number of reservations.
We need to be thinking much more carefully about the drivers and barriers to using the internet; personal circumstance, self-confidence and individual perception of the internet’s value are all factors we need to think through. Whilst those who are more confident and interested might seek out standalone digital support, not everyone will.
Digital support needs to become part of the everyday: anyone supporting older people should be able to identify if and how digital can help an individual and provide the appropriate support. We need to be trialling new models of engagement, outreach and ways of embedding digital support within a wider range of services.
And in recognising that some people will not get online – with 4.8 million people over the age of 55 currently not online according to the latest ONS statistics – we must make sure that those who choose not to use the internet don’t lose out.
It’s about starting with the person, understanding their needs and motivations, and enabling them to use digital to meet these – not starting with digital and thinking about how we can try and ‘sell it’ to people in later life.