Bridging the digital divide

39% of people in Middlesbrough don't use the internet. How can we help those who don't have access?

My Grandma Doreen is 89 this year. Her and my Grandad are surrounded by a supportive family who live close by.

We drop them off shopping, have socially distanced chats at the front door and generally they appear to be coping well with the pandemic.

My grandma is one of a growing number of older people who are digitally connected.

In a time when the digital divide is dominating the discussion around loneliness, I wanted to find out how she feels about her journey to get online.

“Ooooh I don’t know what I would do without it now,” she said.

“I play scrabble with your mam and Facebook passes so much time, I read everything and it’s all so interesting. Having it makes me feel connected to the rest of the world.”

While this isn’t evidence of a reduction in loneliness due to digital connection, it is valuable insight into what my grandma sees as the main benefits to being able to scroll through Facebook – feeling connected, included and informed.

Ageing Better programmes across the country have been delivering digital support with older people for the last five years.

In this time, we have learnt a lot about the barriers for older people to become digitally connected – as well as some of the motivators and enablers. You can find a summary of this learning here.

In many ways Grandma Doreen is a good case study for our key learning points.

Firstly, she didn’t want to get online. She said : “I didn’t want it. I said it wasn’t for me. I didn’t understand how it could help me. Your Dad told me I should get an iPad, but I said ‘No, I didn’t want one’.”

We know finding the right ‘hook’ for older people is key. Motivation to learn something new must be linked to the interests and personal needs of the individual. For my grandma, this was to do with missing out on family photos.

Gone are the days where we would trek over to her house with a wallet of newly developed pictures of her great-grandchildren on holiday.

Grandma is big on photos. They have a whole storage unit in their house specially to store stacks of photo albums that chronicle every possible family occasion since about 1960. All carefully labelled and date stamped.

Being able to keep up to date with day to day activity of the grandkids and great-grandkids was enough to start the conversation. We would show her photos on our phones all the time, and I think in the end she got fed up with me saying ”oh, sorry you didn’t see this sooner, but we posted them all on Facebook.”

Michelle’s grandma – with two of her great grandchildren.

That’s when the role of someone with a trusted voice comes into play. For some older people this could be a telephone befriender, GP, neighbour or friend. For Grandma, it was my Dad. Along with the rest of us, he was persistent.

We all convinced her to get a Wi-Fi connection and passed down a second hand iPad to her. We then showed her how to use it.

But in line with our national learning, showing her how to use an iPad was not enough. What she needed was ongoing support to build her confidence.

She had lots of help from my sister who (prior to Covid-19) spent a lot of time in their house and was on hand to help when something unexpected popped up in the screen. The rest of the family solved problems over the phone or in person when she got stuck or the Wi-Fi box needed resetting.

We tried patiently (and sometimes not so patiently!) to talk her through how to find something on Facebook that she’d seen.

“it’s there one minute and gone the next, I want to show your Grandad that video you posted. Where has it gone?” . She said.

It has taken years for her to know how to navigate Facebook so she can share things or save content before it disappears off her timeline. For people who have spent a lifetime without the need for a computer, nothing is ‘intuitive’.

But we know that many older people don’t have this kind of network around them. For them, this support can only come from patient, empathic staff or well-trained volunteers.

Our local learning in Middlesbrough suggests that support should be device specific and at the pace of the individual. You might need to help the person solve the same problem repeatedly.

If the support is time limited or not responsive enough, the smallest of set-backs (like an unruly pop-up or request for system updates) can halt all digital activity in its tracks.

For those of you with the role of ‘digital supporter’ in your own families, this learning won’t be new.

I have found myself in numerous discussions in Zoom breakout rooms during recent national conferences talking about choice. What about older people who don’t want to be digitally connected?

This is an interesting question for us as professionals working with lonely older people. Convincing Grandma that social media could help her feel more connected to people took a while, but we could be persuasive and insistent. We are family.

As professionals, striking the balance between supporting someone to understand the benefits of something whilst respecting their choices is part of the job. Our learning suggests that the best approach is to keep the idea of digital in the conversation, remind people that it’s an option for them and that support is available.

I asked Grandma what she would say to other older people who say the internet isn’t for them and she said this:

“You can’t say it isn’t for you if you don’t really know what it’s about. I wouldn’t be without it now.”

In the world of older people and loneliness, Grandma is one of the lucky ones. Her and my Grandad can afford their monthly Wi-Fi connection and have family close by to provide support, as well as second-hand devices.

For those older people living in poverty with no close family, there are greater barriers to becoming digitally included. Even with access to long term digital support provided by well trained staff and volunteers, the barrier of cost appears to have no real sustainable solution.

It feels overwhelmingly unfair that the people who could benefit the most from being able to remotely connect to other people during this time are the people most unlikely to be able to afford it.

In Middlesbrough 39% of people don’t use the internet.

(Blank, G. Graham, M & Calvino C, Local Geographies of Digital Inequalities, Social Science Computer Review, 2018, Vol 36(1) 82-102 (Date Accessed 19 May 2020)

The recently released Lloyds Bank Consumer Digital Index describes the national picture:

· At a crucial time when digital can turn isolation into inclusion, the behavioural data shows that only 7% of over 70’s are likely to have the capability to shop and manage their money online.

· 77% of this age group have Very Low digital engagement. It is not just the elderly who are under-equipped though; 52% of those offline are between 60 and 70 years old, and 44% of those offline are under the age of 60. Often, it is the most vulnerable and disadvantaged who are the most likely to be digitally excluded.

· People with an impairment are 25% less likely to have the skills to access devices and get online by themselves

· People with an annual household income of £50,000 or more are 40% more likely to have Foundation digital skills, than those earning less than £17,499

· 4-in-10 benefit claimants have Very Low digital engagement.

This makes me worried for our local communities. We find ourselves in a world where services including health and social care are scrambling to get their services and support online against a backdrop of an economic downturn that we know brings with it a wave of misery for the people already worst affected by inequality.

We are talking about a ‘new normal’ that we all need to adapt to. The old normal was already unfair for lots of people, so the new normal shouldn’t be a place where people are even further excluded.

Whilst I know from my day to day job the difference the digital inclusion support provided by Ageing Better has made to people, I fear that we are just scraping the surface of an issue which is set to become the new health inequality.


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