The reopening following the national lockdown has highlighted the fact that 50 percent of over-65s, rising to 70 percent of over-75s, do not have a smartphone that enables them to download apps. As a result, they can be denied access to pubs, cafes and restaurants requiring them to check in with the NHS Track and Trace app. 

This is a clear example of what is termed the ‘digital divide’.

The Covid-19 pandemic has served to accelerate digital usage. Time spent online has rocketed to record levels. Online retailers have enjoyed increased sales of between 30-50 percent.

Many older people do find smartphones confusing and difficult to use – although, as we all know, this is not necessarily limited to the more elderly among us! But there are a range of devices designed to simplify use. Older people can benefit from devices such as Amazon Alexa, smart TV, or designs incorporating push-button rather than touchscreen technology, for example.

While there may be growing numbers of ‘younger’ older people now online, it remains the case that far too many over-80s are not online for one simple reason: they do not have access to broadband.

This needs to change.

Getting the 'kit’ to them, such as smartphones, tablets, laptops or desktop computers, is solvable. Such items are readily available and at prices that are not prohibitive. Less easily remedied is getting them access to broadband at home.

This is critical.

In order to support such people, in order to enable them to stay living in their own homes for as long as possible, internet access is crucial. They need broadband. They need to be connected.

Balancing

Balancing the advantages gained from enabling such access, both for the individual and society in general, against the costs incurred through lack of access, it is clear that broadband should be free to those aged over 80 at the very least.

The over-80s are most likely to be 'stranded’ in hospital, unable to be discharged and taking up a bed for longer than is medically necessary, because of lack of support in place at home. The over-80s are the least mobile, with some unable to get unaided to shops and services. The over-80s are more likely to be living on their own. And, the over-80s have the highest care needs.

Closing the digital divide here would have a huge impact.

Connectivity enables people to live longer, and more safely, in their own homes. It helps people feel less isolated and lonely. It allows care organisations, support services, and social services to better monitor people. It aids access and two-way communication with GPs. The benefits are obvious and enormous.

One way to deliver this could be for the private internet providers to be required to waive charges for the over-80s.

Internet access is now as much a necessity as a water or gas supply.

Lockdown has exposed this discrimination. Now, going forward, it should, and must be tackled.

Shane Brennan

Photo courtesy of Centre for Ageing Better