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Broadcaster Beti George writes about life with technology for older people

A portrait photograph of Beti George

New, digital technology – these words frighten many people of my generation. “I don’t have the patience,” “I don’t understand it,” “It’s for young people.” But in truth, the digital world can enrich the lives of older people, and it isn’t anything to be scared of – it really isn’t!

During COVID-19, this technology came into its own, and lots of people learned how to use it on their tablets or phones. For those who lived alone, it connected them with their families. Zoom and Facetime and Skype became household words, and for many, they became the only way to cope with loneliness. They’re also such a blessing when relatives live elsewhere, in another country perhaps, far across the world.

I’ve been fortunate because of my work. It was necessary for me to learn to use new technology. And it was invaluable during the period when I was looking after David, my partner, who had Alzheimer’s.

We both used to enjoy going to concerts at St David’s Hall. When that became impossible as this cruel disease advanced, I discovered resources available by one of the best orchestras in the world, the Berlin Philharmonic. For a hundred pounds a year, we could stream live concerts and download whatever we wanted from their massive archive. What a bargain! So we would enjoy three or four concerts a week and David loved it. Although he was unable to remember extensive parts of his life, and his day-to-day memory was more or less shot to pieces, he would recall snippets from the concerts. Sometimes, in the middle of the night he would sing what he had heard. I remember him well singing Dance of the Knights from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet!

When he was diagnosed in 2009, very little information was available, particularly in terms of care. There was stigma and a lack of awareness of the disease. We had several bad experiences – once when we were eating out in a pub in Llangrannog, of all places – a village that is/was so close to my heart since my roots are in that vicinity. 

There was very little help and support available. I had joined Twitter – the social networking site. It was the best thing I did. There was a small close-knit community of people involved with dementia, which has grown significantly since those early days. It was there, rather than from the official social services, that I found support and help with overcoming problems – and those were numerous, as anyone who knows about caring for someone with dementia can tell you.

I would ask for advice about this or that, and almost immediately, half a dozen people would reach out to help, and these were people who had learned through experience rather than academic theories. I got to know about meetings and conferences that were often held online. I learned about the disease and research and efforts to try to find answers, including in other countries. And via the internet, since the disease received very little attention in the press at that time, I learned that this was a Cinderella disease, unable to secure the funding needed for research of any real value. Twitter became one of the tools in the campaign to improve the situation, and little by little the government provided additional money for conducting more intensive research, with Cardiff University as one of the organisations at the forefront. 

Social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook and TikTok have a bad reputation and the content can be incredibly nasty and harmful. On the other hand, they can also have very substantial social value.

Nowadays, my life is contained in my little smartphone. It brings me news, entertainment, information about anything, S4C and all the other channels, Radio Cymru (and if I may give a shout out here! – the Beti a’i Phobl archive is available on BBC Sounds, for example, and I’m aware that many people listen to those conversations on their mobiles during car journeys). It’s all available on your phone or tablet and provides excellent company.

I also use it for banking. In the old days, I had little control over my account, and had to go to the bank to deposit or withdraw money and to discuss any problems with the manager, who was a friend most of the time, and I miss that. But you now have to travel far, even in a city like Cardiff, to find a bank. So these days, I do it all on my phone and I know exactly where I stand without leaving the house. It’s a blessing.

I do my shopping on my phone, I buy clothes, shoes, practically everything. And if I see something in a recipe and it’s unavailable in any grocery or supermarket in Cardiff – I’ll look for it on the phone and have it delivered before I know it!

Compared to writing letters, email is so convenient and any expected replies can arrive in an instant. So too, texting or WhatsApping!

But it worries me nevertheless that more and more services are accessed online only, and people get left behind or fall through the net because they don’t use the technology. Even when there is a choice, the online service is better and more effective. Trying to make a phonecall for a service can involve waiting half an hour or more before being answered, and you’ll get a message saying it’s better to send an email. There are times when you really need to talk to someone about a problem, and nothing annoys me more than, “You’re tenth in the queue……….” Grrrrr! Bring back those pre-digital days when having your phonecall answered within a minute or two was an indication of good service!  

In all seriousness, we cannot ignore ongoing technological developments. Digital is not just for young people. If anything, it’s more important that we have a handle on it as we get older so that we are not left behind. 

Learning to use new technology is fun and really not difficult at all. Your grandchildren will help you!

Written by Beti George.