Eva is 87 years old and a widow. Although very active, the global pandemic put a stop to her busy social life. Well, not quite…

Thanks to social networks and access to the internet, Eva was able to keep in touch with her family, maintaining friendships and even making some new ones. However, she found that not all her friends were available – some lived in remote areas where connectivity was not reliable, and others did not have the technical knowledge or courage to access social media platforms.

Eva also happens to be the mother of Enrique Opi, World Mobile’s Vice President of the Corporate Office. She is able to keep in touch with Enrique’s wife’s family in Finland, thanks to the automatic translation function, and often receives news from his wife’s relatives before he does. Enrique says, “She sends her love across the world in multiple messages, and she gets a lot of lovely messages back. I call her the influencer. Her need for connection made her overcome the fear of technology.”

A connected ageing population is one that can access banking, online shopping, learning, as well as maintain friendships and create new connections. One that can get health advice, pay for parking spaces and stream their favourite shows. So why do many older people lack confidence in accessing these benefits and feel left behind by technological advances?

As Eva discovered, there were a few reasons why some of her friends couldn’t communicate with her over the internet. Connectivity and availability of affordable devices can be a problem. High-speed and low-cost internet may be unattainable for older people living on a pension, as can a tablet or mobile – especially if they can’t anticipate or understand the benefits and value it will bring. And many parts of the world are still underserved by reliable connections, including rural Spain where Eva lives.

It’s no wonder some find it difficult to access the internet. Numerous passwords, setting up broadband, finding Wi-Fi hotspots – Eva had to negotiate all of this, as well as learn what is essentially a new language. Indeed, many find that getting – and staying – connected can be a job in itself, especially if the terminology we use is alien. ‘Connect to the router’, ‘double click on this’, ‘download that’ may make sense to many of us, but for someone who’s earlier life centred around black and white TV and writing cheques, it can be meaningless! A lack of digital literacy means that people don’t have confidence in using technology, fearing that they may break something or access something inappropriate. Or simply fail to understand the instructions. Eva overcame her fear of technology through her desire to be in touch with her friends across the globe. But for many, this fear can be overwhelming and a considerable barrier.

As we get older and our bodies remind us of the creeping passage of time, we may find that certain devices are more difficult to use and access. Our eyesight may make it more challenging to view writing on buttons, or stiff joints can make negotiating touch screens trickier. Apps may also be designed for the younger eye, creating a barrier to access.

But none of these barriers are insurmountable. Or, indeed, they shouldn’t be. People are living longer, and the number of older people is growing rapidly. In 2020, there were 727 million people over the age of 65 years. This is projected to double over the next 30 years (UN World Population Ageing 2020). The digital literacy of the elderly population may improve as digital natives age, but what can we do to break down the barriers now, so that Eva – and people like her – can communicate with all her friends and continue to benefit from online access?

Ensuring a reliable and easily accessible connection is fundamental, but it is also important that we create devices and apps that are age- and knowledge-appropriate. There are smartphones available with assistive technology, large buttons and compatibility with hearing aids. In addition, accessibility issues must be a consideration for app developers. The design of mobile interfaces, use of graphics and colour, and browser features (such as avoiding scroll bars and the omission of multiple pop-up windows) should be part of every design process. To avoid ‘dumbing down’, developers should collaborate with the end users themselves to ensure that developing technology is in line with the capabilities of the current older generation.

Accessible devices and apps are a step in the right direction, but without engagement by the end users they are fairly pointless! As Eva discovered, some of her friends were scared and cautious of this technology that felt so new to them. Digital literacy classes – for ‘silver surfers’ – and other community-based projects are available, helping people understand the language required for digital engagement. And showing the benefits to accessing this technology is also important – it’s not all about sharing pics of your breakfast, you can also chat to friends and family across continents, as well as you doctor, bank and other service providers.

Eva lives in Europe, but this is also applicable further afield. International NGO HelpAge International states that in Tanzania only 4% of older people receive a pension, so many must work into old age. By having digital access, they can get financial help and advice, learn new skills, receive health support as well as keep in touch with family members.

Digital inclusivity should be considered a human right, so that older people can access all the services that the rest of the population can. Eva and her friends – and others like her, across the world – will be able to stay connected, accessing essential services and keeping friendships alive while combatting isolation. If we don’t do something to address this divide, the digital gap will just get bigger.

World Mobile Staff
World Mobile Staff