Internet both helps and harms seniors’ social lives, says report

A new report commissioned by the UK government highlights some major challenges to helping older people stay connected in an increasingly digital world.
sad older person
An increasingly digital world will affect older people’s support networks and their ability to stay connected.

The Internet offers potential benefits and also poses threats to older citizens, says the document, prepared by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) for the UK Government Office for Science.

The report, which examines the impact that the Internet will have on older people in coming decades, finds that nearly 5 million people over the age of 64 in the UK do not have Internet skills.

It explains how many older Britons find digital technology is “too difficult to use,” or they see it as a luxury rather than an essential tool for improving their everyday lives.

One area the report focuses on is the way an increasingly digital world will affect older people’s support networks and their ability to stay connected to them.

It finds that the Internet poses both harms and benefits: traditional forms of interaction will fade, to be superseded by staying in touch with distant friends and family through Skype, email and social networking tools.

Barriers seniors face in becoming Internet-skilled

But there are barriers – both physical and mental – to acquiring Internet skills, say report authors Dr. Jacqueline Damant and Prof. Martin Knapp, from the LSE’s Personal Social Services Research Unit.

They explain how deteriorating eyesight, tremors, arthritis and memory loss all make it much harder for the older person to learn and use digital technology. Other barriers they identify include:

  • Lack of skills and familiarity with information and communication technology (ICT), especially in those who left the workplace just before or around the time it became mainstream
  • The perception that information technology is expensive
  • Broadband, wireless and Internet facilities tend to be poor or lacking for older people, such as in care homes

Dr. Damant says this adds up to a scenario where:

“Overall, the evidence suggests that older adults are deeply ambivalent towards ICT and reluctant to let it encroach too much into their daily lives.”

However, the report also says evidence of the effect of ICT on older people is mixed. Some studies say older users feel a sense of achievement and boosted self-esteem from having it in their lives, while other studies say there has been little or no improvement in wellbeing.

The authors note, however, there is evidence that older adults who use ICT “appear to experience positive impacts on their level of participation in volunteer, social, religious and political activities, clubs and organizations.”

Older people will use Internet more and more

The report anticipates that older people will increasingly use the Internet for everyday things like shopping, banking, staying in touch with others, entertainment and leisure. But it also warns devices will have to be better designed for use by older people.

Another area where digital technology could bring about transformation is in the delivery of health and social care services. Strategies to do this are currently being explored, note the authors.

However, while there is “a lot of anticipation” that services such as telecare and telehealth will emerge to offer affordable, personalized services to patients when they need them, and provide reassurance to families and carers, the report notes that: “Robust evidence to date does not support that anticipation.”

The authors urge the government, public sector organizations and charities to do more to ensure no older person is denied access to digital technology because of cost, because their sight or hearing is failing, their hands are shaky or their memory is not so good.

Dr. Damant says:

“Care homes in particular should pay more attention to providing Internet access.”

At present, only 25% of registered care homes in the UK – or 4178 out of 20,000 – provide Wi-Fi facilities for their residents, says the report.

Earlier this year, Medical News Today learned of a study that does much to dispel the idea that older adults have lost interest in sex, and moreover, are too technophobic to pursue such an interest online. It appears that silver surfers are using the Internet to discover and discuss the joys of sex and swap advice.

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