The digital revolution in Wales: older people online and on-board?
By Iwan Williams, Communities, Local Government and Wellbeing Lead, Older People’s Commissioner for Wales
The continuing rise of digital technologies means that the world is rapidly changing. We often take for granted the opportunities we have to bank or shop online, or to use the internet to speak to a relative on the other side of the world. But while such activities are quickly becoming the norm and can make a big difference to people’s lives, there is now a growing expectation for people to do things online.
However, these developments are leaving a significant proportion of older people behind: over a third of people aged 50+ in Wales are digitally excluded and do not use online services.
For some, being digitally excluded is a choice, while others are not part of the digital revolution due to other reasons such as poverty or a lack of opportunities to use computers and digital technology.
A good example of how some older people are being left behind can be seen in the case of an older person who contacted our casework team, having received a letter from a financial company instructing her to update her details online. When the individual explained that she didn’t use computers, the financial company explained that she could fill in a paper form to update her details. In order to request the form, however, she would need to contact the company… by email!
This is the kind of challenge facing many older people in Wales, and those who are not online face discrimination. Older people who do not use digital technology are increasingly missing out on benefits and financial savings as a result of using traditional methods for banking and commerce. Research suggests that older people are paying a high price for not participating in digital services: offline households miss out on savings of up to £560 a year from shopping and paying bills online.
A number of companies are also phasing out letters, telephone numbers and physical buildings, moving towards digital-only services and interaction. This leaves some older people in a very difficult position, frustrated by the lack of empathy and understanding demonstrated by some companies.
There is no doubt that digital technologies can make positive differences to older people’s lives. The ability to speak with friends or family in other parts of the world, or new interests and hobbies developed through using digital technology, can help reduce loneliness and isolation, for example. Furthermore, taking up opportunities to use digital products can lead to older people gaining new skills and qualifications that can help them to for remain in or return to the workplace.
There is much good work underway across Wales to raise awareness about the benefits of digital technologies and encourage older people to use get online. For example, the Welsh Government and Wales Co-operative Centre delivers Digital Communities Wales, which provides free digital inclusion training for older people and ensures they are confident in using digital technologies. Similarly, Barclays Bank provides older people with practical help and support to get online through its Digital Eagles programme.
While initiatives like these are welcome and should be supported, it is vital that there is individuals have as much choice possible in terms of the digital learning opportunities available to them. It is also essential, however, that those older people who do not wish to use digital services are able to engage fully with public and private sector services through traditional, non-digital means.
Older people should not be effectively punished for not using digital technology, and companies should understand and respect this as Wales cannot afford to have a significant proportion of its older people marginalised and discriminated against.
The digital revolution is both changing and improving many people’s lives. It is vital, however, that the shift towards digital technology does not have a negative impact upon older people’s lives. Ensuring that people have a voice that is listened to, and that they have choice and control, should be the guiding principle as the digital journey in Wales continues.