Day of Older Persons: Age must not be a barrier to technology and digital literacy

As today is International Day of Older Persons, it is an opportune time to note that digital literacy and digital access is something that simply must be made available to all who desire it, whatever their age, writes Angela Gallagher
Day of Older Persons: Age must not be a barrier to technology and digital literacy

If the Covid pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we must seek to remove any and all barriers we can to digital access for those who desire it.

October 1 was designated International Day of Older Persons by the United Nations in 1990. 

It is a day for highlighting and celebrating our older population, who make up a significant part of our community. Age Action predicts that one in four of our population will be over 65 in the next couple of decades.

The theme for this year’s International Day of Older Persons, ‘Digital Equality for all Ages’ is very appropriate, as we emerge from the impact of the pandemic. Older people carried a significant burden when society closed down. 

We retreated into our homes, we were often cut off from family. We forfeited the comfort of friendship, companionship and many of the activities that gave meaning and structure to our lives.

Yet, many found that technology could help fill in the gaps, and embraced it. Those who had smartphones or other devices soon discovered that religious services could be attended ‘virtually’; a beloved grandchild’s smiling face could pop up on a small screen; Bridge could be played ‘at a distance’; library books could be ordered; group chats and the craic could be had via Zoom; shopping could be chosen and delivered; exercise classes, Salsa and Pilates could be done online; concerts and talks could be attended, and all often for free. 

While one world had closed down, a whole new and different world had opened up.

There can be no substitute for social contact, something that is now - thankfully - on the way back. But in its absence, for those who could avail of them, these digital connections could and did make a difference in reducing the feeling of social isolation, not just for those living alone, but also for older people whose wellbeing and happiness benefits from a stimulating range of activities.

The fortunate among us benefitted from skills acquired in pre-Covid times, reaping the reward of intergenerational families and the digital knowledge gleaned from younger family members. The pace of digital change and development can be astonishing — so much so that I sometimes wonder if young children are born predisposed to technical wizardry. 

It is certainly a world away from the technological leaps that marked out my own generation, which grew up celebrating the arrival of the public phone box on the village street, or even electricity itself.

Yet for all its benefits, it is also true that digital exclusion remains a reality for a significant portion of our older population. While many do not have the means, the equipment, the connectivity, or the skills to get online, others prefer not to engage with the digital, and that is their respected right. 

But if the Covid pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we must seek to remove any and all barriers we can to digital access for those who desire it. We have already made strides in that direction.

We are fortunate in Ireland to have a number of dedicated groups that offer free tuition and help to anyone who would like to become part of the broader digital community. Internet accessibility continues to improve with broadband and WiFi becoming more widely available. 

Access is now often freely available in libraries, town centres and to customers in business premises, and increasingly affordably through our phones. Innovation is also playing its part. 

Age-friendly help with technology

 Angela Gallagher. Picture: Dan Linehan
Angela Gallagher. Picture: Dan Linehan

Take for example one excellent Irish product – the Acorn Smart Tablet, which is designed specifically as an age-friendly device. Tested by older people, it simplifies internet access with its easy-to-use features and is highly portable. Telephone companies are also developing smartphones that are increasingly user-friendly and intuitive.

Still, there is more that can and should be done. Digital literacy and digital access is something that simply must be made available to all who desire it, whatever their age. It is to be hoped that government will explore new initiatives to that end — perhaps including the subsidisation of digital equipment for older people, as they once did with telephones. 

Training in digital awareness must come hand in glove with literacy and access. Most of us have natural concerns around digital security, as scammers become more and more sophisticated, although interestingly, the average age of those who have been scammed is well below that of ‘older’ people. 

However, here too help appears to be at hand. The newly launched ‘Hi Digital.ie’ website, a collaboration between Alone, Active Retirement Ireland and Vodaphone, hopes to provide digital training to 230,000 people over 65 over the next five years. 

Reassuringly, being safe online is a key feature of their programme. This service is in addition to Age Action’s well established Getting Started programme, in which older users receive tuition from volunteers from industry, schools and their peers.

For any older people considering taking the plunge into the digital world, my advice would be to give it a whirl. And remember, it is not a one-way street. 

We older people have rich personal stories, knowledge and expertise gained throughout our lives. In a rapidly changing world, that wisdom and experience can be invaluable to the lives of others — even — perhaps especially—in a digital setting. 

When older people can access and use new technology, their lives and the lives of those around them, near and far, can be enhanced to an unimaginable degree. On this International Day of Older Persons, let us take steps to encourage and help as many as we can to join in the plan for Digital Equality for All Ages.

Age Action: Ageaction.ie

Acorn Age Friendly Tablets: MyAcorn.ie

Hi Digital: Hidigital.ie

Age & Opportunity: Ageandopportunity.ie

Alone: Alone.ie

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