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What Covid restrictions could mean for digitally excluded older people this Christmas

As Omicron runs rampant through the UK, expected restrictions could shine a light on the importance of digital inclusion for older people.

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The pandemic did not drive an extra increase in older people getting online. Image: Pexels

Families across the UK are preparing for a Christmas that looks vastly different to the one predicted just weeks ago. The soaring number of cases of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 is putting an end to parties, events and get-togethers over the festive season.

For some, it means a return to staying in touch with loved ones over Zoom, text and social media. But for many older people, the real-life effects of digital exclusion are about to rear their head.

Around 1.4 million older people expect to feel lonely this Christmas, according to Age UK research, with high numbers feeling “depressed and anxious” about spending it alone. 

“Everybody’s going to be facing difficulties if we’re, again, not going to be able to see people in the same way that we used to,” Sally West, the organisation’s policy manager, told The Big Issue. 

“People who can stay in touch with others digitally will quite rightly say, well, it’s not like seeing my family. It’s not like giving them a hug. But people who aren’t online, particularly older people, are more likely to feel forgotten.”

Digital exclusion is a real concern for people from all walks of life, particularly those living in poverty or people who don’t speak English as their first language. But the figures examining the digital engagement of people later in life are stark.

Less than half of people aged 75 or over use the internet ‘occasionally’, while two in five of the same group never go online. The biggest challenge facing this group is a lack of skills and confidence in using the internet, or concerns around security – where younger groups grew up as digital natives, older people have watched the transition of life online in real time, often without the same opportunities to get to grips with the technology.

The number of older people engaging with digital technology has increased during the pandemic, West explains, but only in line with a trend already observed before Covid-19 hit. Even if the crisis pushed more people to get online, the essential face-to-face support services that usually help older people learn digital skills from scratch were closed. 

Deepening financial hardship also posed a barrier to older people not yet online. As living costs mounted in recent months, Independent Age analysis showed nearly a fifth of pensioners were living in poverty – and smartphones, computers, broadband and data expenses dropped down many priority lists.

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“It’s not just about the absolute cost, it’s whether it’s worthwhile for a person making a budget stretch,” West said. “You might feel you could just about afford it, but if you’re only going to use it once a week, it doesn’t offer value for money.

“People will weigh up the costs against other pressures which might already be making it difficult to afford food, clothes, transport and heating.”

But increasing digital inclusion for older people doesn’t just mean preventing loneliness at Christmas. In the year ahead, it should mean helping them feel comfortable with using public services online in a way many are now accustomed to, West said. That could be contacting a local authority, sorting out a bus pass or managing benefit claims through digital portals.

“Sometimes you can’t call an organisation up if you can’t first go online to get their number,” she said. “And even then, those services are often less efficient and involve long waits compared to sorting out business online. 

“It’s important every older person has the option to use online services if they want to. But as more of life moves online there must be alternatives in place too, or you put people – who are often vulnerable – at a disadvantage.”

But the promise of not being kept on hold to a local council is unlikely to be the answer to boosting digital inclusion for older people.

When questioned, only 15 per cent of over-75s said they would like to use the internet more. For some, this is because they used it previously and decided it wasn’t for them or because of health issues. But for others, it’s because no one thought to show them what else they could get out of digital technology: enjoyment.

“The first thing a lot of our educators have to do is give people a motivation for doing it,” West said. “If you just put up a sign saying ‘come to a digital inclusion class’, not many people turn up. 

“Instead, it’s about giving people a taster for what the internet can really do. That might mean looking up a hobby or researching a family tree. Or it might mean having video calls with family over Christmas when we can’t all be together.”

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