Society is digitalising at lightning speed. We shop, book holidays and do our banking online, and are encouraged to do so. Those not on board that digital train are at risk of social exclusion. This is a particular problem for older people, according to the Digital Ageing survey by Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), Antwerp University (UAntwerp) and HOGENT. The results have been compiled in the book "Oud en digitaal: realiteit of utopie?"(Old and digital: reality or utopia?).
A lot of older people are active online today. The Digital Ageing survey shows that while between 2004 and 2009 only a quarter of over-60s (24%) were internet users, by 2010-2015 it was nearly half (46.2%). In 2016-2021, this increased to almost three-quarters (71.4 %).
But to conclude from this that the older generation is totally on board with today’s digital reality is risky. Those who are more digitally literate tend to be "young seniors", predominantly male and highly educated, in the higher income bracket and married or cohabiting.
According to data from 2016-2021, four in 10 older people (40.8%) had no internet access. They are more likely to be women, over-80, have a lower education level and lower monthly household income and not be married (particularly widows and widowers).
"Those socio-demographic characteristics appear to correspond with being familiar or not familiar with the internet," explains Professor Nico De Witte (VUB/HOGENT). "For example, the survey shows that four in five (80.1%) of over-80s with only primary education didn’t use the internet during the period 2016-2021. That’s almost three times as high as the percentage of non-users among the total elderly population in the same period (28.6%)."
Covid: inequalities remain
During the pandemic, lockdowns and restrictions on in-person contact meant that people turned en masse to online communication. Video calling saw a huge increase, including among older people, with almost one in two older people (47%) saying they used video chatting or video calling more during the pandemic.
"That increase also shows socio-demographic inequalities," says Anina Vercruyssen (UAntwerp). "Indeed, the rising use of video calling doesn’t occur to an equal extent among all older people. The biggest increase was among the youngest (aged 60-69), women, and those who did not suffer financially as a result of the crisis."
Lonely and less mobile means less internet use
Another notable - and paradoxical - finding is that less mobile older people, who cannot, for example, get around on foot, by bike or by car, are less internet-active than more mobile older people. In other words, those who are at more risk of being housebound and who would most benefit from internet use - including for social contact - are increasingly excluded.
"Less mobile older people who do have access to the internet also often limit their activities to information searches and sending emails," says Jorrit Campens (HOGENT/VUB). "Only a small minority engage in activities such as banking or connecting with people online."
A similar paradox is seen in the relationship between internet use and loneliness. Internet access is a very important tool in addressing loneliness in older people. But there are more non-users among moderately and severely lonely older people than among those who don’t experience loneliness.
Motivation for internet use
Regardless of age, digital inclusion means having access, skills and support to interact with digital devices and applications. In terms of access, affordable devices and internet subscriptions should be available. It is not always possible to pay for these on a pension.
Once that barrier is overcome, older people need skills to be able to use devices and the internet. Family and friends play a very important role in prompting and motivating people to use digital devices, but it is still often necessary to take a course or workshop with instructors who know how to teach that specific group. Learning later in life sometimes requires a different approach. In addition, older people should always be able to fall back on some form of support: they should be able to ask for help or at least know where to go to find advice.
The book "Oud en digitaal: realiteit of utopie?" highlights the importance of digital inclusion of older people and gives practitioners, policymakers, students, researchers and healthcare professionals guidance on the subject of internet use and digital devices for older people.
During a book launch, the authors and co-authors will introduce the publication and discuss issues such as innovation and digitisation, the design of the Digital Ageing study, digital exclusion and diversity in internet use, the importance of support, and teaching digital skills to older people.
The presentation takes place on 20 June at 13.30, Zebrastraat, Ghent.
13.40. The design of the Digital Ageing study and how digitalisation can contribute to a good life for older people: Dr Anina Vercruyssen
14.30. From stumbling blocks in learning digital skills to ICT courses tailored to the lifestyles of older people: Dr Anina Vercruyssen
We would like to invite the press to attend the book launch. Would you like to attend or to arrange an interview with one of the authors? Please let us know by Monday 19 June via [email protected]