Call to bridge digital divide and help older people get online

The internet has been a quiet hero of the pandemic but for some it remains a challenge. Fiona Evans looks at the digital divide and its impact on older people.

What would we have done without it? The internet has been a lifeline for so many of us during recent months.

Whether for shopping, news, homeschooling or providing that crucial connection to family and friends, the web seems to have had our backs.

Trying to envisage lockdown without it doesn’t bear thinking about for many of us, yet that has been the reality for some.

Now let’s be clear, this won’t be a problem for everyone but there can be little doubt that digital know-how offers options, especially when the alternatives seem to be shrinking.

During the lockdown, many people turned to the internet for shopping, socialising and accessing services but there are fears that those without basic digital skills and the means to get online could be left out in the cold – particularly if the UK enters lockdown again.

The Centre for Ageing Better says that in the event of a second lockdown, many older people are at risk of being left behind as services move online often without offline alternatives.

The charitable foundation points to recent figures from the Office for National Statistics showing that internet use has rapidly increased among over-65s in recent years, but at the start of this year a fifth of over-65s living alone still did not have internet access.

The Centre for Ageing Better has warned that action is needed to bridge the digital divide.

“These figures show that while internet use has been rising in recent years, there are still many at risk of missing out as increasing numbers of services and activities move online,” said Anna Dixon, chief executive at the Centre for Ageing Better.“During lockdown, the internet provided a vital lifeline for many – allowing people to stay in touch with friends and family, access banking or use medical services. But not everyone has been able to make the leap online, and it’s vital that those people are not left behind.“More support is needed to help people develop digital skills. And government, businesses and service providers must ensure that those without internet access are not locked out of access to information and essential services such as banking, health information, shopping or paying bills.”

Age UK, the leading charity for older people, believes that older people should be supported and encouraged to get online, but those who cannot, or do not want to do so should be able to access services and support in a way that suits them.

A report published by the charity in March (and drawing on research carried out in 2019) noted that “there will always be some people who cannot, or choose not to, use the internet. Public and private service providers need to ensure that there are suitable alternative ways to access essential services and support.”

The report explored why some older people stop using the internet and noted that in addition to those people aged 65+ who had never used it, a further half a million older people had used the internet in the past but not recently.

It highlighted the importance of enabling older people to maintain digital skills, as well as acquiring them, pointing out that “being able to use the internet is not like riding a bike – a skill that you gain and then retain.”

Interviews with people who had stopped using the internet showed that giving up can be a result of factors including: difficulties in keeping up with changing technology, not having anyone to help when problems arise, health-related issues, lack of interest, and cost. Concern about scams was also cited as a key issue.

Among the report’s recommendations was a call to invest in services that enable older people to maintain digital skills, as well as gain them.

Ways older people can get digital support:

· Many local Age UKs in England and local Age Cymru charities in Wales have been able to continue delivering telephone digital skills support throughout lockdown. This support often includes one to one support as well as tablet loan schemes. Visit Age UK’s website: or call their free Advice Line on 0800 169 65 65 to find out the details for your local Age UK to see what support they can offer.

· If anyone wants to inspire and motivate older people to get online, Age UK has a Digital Buddy training video, which provides guidance on supporting older friends and relatives with digital technology and how it could benefit them. It also signposts older people to services which could help them to learn essential digital skills.

· Age UK also has a range of information about technology and the internet, including how to use video calls and how to stay safe online: or you can call Age UK’s Advice Line to find out what support is available.