Access gives control: digital empowerment for older people – a blog for the UN Older Persons Day

A few years ago, when I was attending a conference on technology one of the speakers made the comment that access to the internet and WIFI should be considered as just as important as the right to water, heat, and electricity. He argued that digital access should be viewed as a public utility. I was reminded of that observation today because this is the annual United Nations International Day of Older Persons. The 2021 theme is “Digital Equity for All Ages” and it focusses on the need for access and meaningful participation in the digital world by older persons.

I’ve written in this blog quite a few times about the role of technology and how critical it is for the current and future delivery of social care. However, at times I think the experiences of discrimination and exclusion which many older people come across in their day-to-day living is exactly what they encounter in the digital world. Despite some significant strides in the last few years, I still believe that age discrimination, exclusion and lack of priority is the reality when we consider the new ‘public utility’ of digital as far as older people are concerned.

There is absolutely no doubt that older people experience digital poverty and exclusion more than any other population group both in Scotland and internationally. The data speaks for itself.

Office of National Statistics data from 2018 show that the over 65s make up an increasingly high proportion of internet non-users. In a major study 79% of non-users in 2018 were 65 or over, with 55% over the age of 75. This compared to 25% and 36% respectively back in 2011. So effectively as the rest of society is becoming more connected and digitally empowered older people are becoming less so.  A similar survey by Lloyds Bank, the Consumer Index 2020 Report, showed that 77% of over 70s had very low engagement compared to just 7% who have high digital engagement.

We have talked about digital exclusion and poverty for some time. We know well some of the main characteristics which prevent individuals of all ages from having access to technology, chief amongst them being socioeconomic background, poverty and other discriminatory characteristics. Indeed, there is wide appreciation that there are some key factors which are involved in digital exclusion including access, both physical and financial; skills, confidence and motivation. Recently Inspiring Scotland published an excellent report reflecting on the Covid pandemic and articulating the importance of addressing digital exclusion. They stated:

‘Overall, it is clear that tackling digital exclusion is essential for individuals and communities to thrive and to ensure that everyone in society receives the opportunities needed to succeed in today’s modern world.’

The pandemic has shown just how much we have become dependent on digital access and skill regardless of our age. At our best we have used technology to connect and ensure that social and personal relationships have been maintained. There has been some really positive work, not least the Connecting Scotland programme. But on their own such innovations and initiatives are insufficient and without real strategic co-ordination the factors which act as barriers to older age participation and empowerment in relation to technology and digital will become embedded. The absence of older age in many of our national strategies and frameworks is particularly concerning, for instance the ‘Renewing Scotland’s Full Potential in the Digital World’ consultation report of late 2020 did not explicitly mention older age.

For me much of the debate around older people and digital access has to be seen through a human rights lens. Article 27 in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” Given that so much of modern culture is now online, given so much which enables an individual to access information about services and supports, about community and connection, are now almost exclusively online, then access to the internet for all citizens is a mark of civic obligation and responsibility and therefore becomes a human rights issue.

Technology and digital matter for many reasons but at their heart is an issue of empowerment of the individual’s personal autonomy and the enabling of their full citizenship and participation in community and society. If we continue to discriminate – and discrimination is not just active exclusion but is also a failure to positively prioritise one group or another in order to level the playing field – then we will continue to build the barriers that limit the ability of older persons to gain the freedom and fullness which digital inclusion potentially brings.

For an older person taking control of your life in 2021 Scotland requires a degree of digital literacy and confidence. That does not just happen – it needs to be resourced in the same way that access has to be resourced whether it is by supplying devices or ensuring that there is adequate connectivity in all places and for all people. Being in charge of your digital world promotes personal independence and reduces dependency – that in itself should encourage investment in technology for all ages.

I really do worry that we are treating older individuals as people to use technology on or for – especially in the social care context. The opposite should be the case. Giving access to information, enabling personal self-management whether it be of finance or health, is about enabling an individual to be as fully independent as they want to be and helps to reduce reliance upon others and unnecessary dependency. There are some tremendous resources out there which help older people become digitally confident such as those from Outside the Box.

But there is also a need to challenge technological and digital attitudes, behaviours and design which serve to disempower older individuals. Just this last week in the US Amazon announced a new subscription service called “Alexa Together,” designed for families with ageing family members who are still living independently, but who may need extra support. It builds on the existing product, Alexa Care Hub, by adding on new protections, like an urgent response feature and access to a professional emergency helpline. Starting early next year, Alexa Together will also make it possible for multiple people to provide support for a loved one — which is useful in situations where siblings may split the duties of caring for a parent, for example.

Now I would be the first to acknowledge that there is real potential in such apps and devices – for instance it can allow carers to set up reminders, give access to music etc, and allow hands free calls and communication.

However, I do yearn for a situation where as much design focus, resource and attention were given to enabling independence for older people as to potentially watching and safeguarding and sometimes passive inactivity. Where is the investment and ingenuity in enabling older persons to be more self-reliant and truly independent in this digital age? Where is the work on accessible, one touch devices etc. It is out there but only on the margins.

The UN Day is about Digital Equity for All Ages and that means putting older people at the heart of design, listening to their designer voice and choice, and being less protective and paternalistic and more empowering and enabling. Digital and technological innovation for older age must tackle stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination associated with digitalisation, taking into account the right to personal autonomy.

We have a long way to go to addressing digital exclusion and making inclusion more than just about having a digital babysitter.

Donald Macaskill