The 21st Century is characterized by increasing digitalisation. As more and more everyday services move online, ‘offliners’ risk being excluded in an era that embraces fast-changing innovation in digital technology. This predominantly concerns older persons who are less digitally connected than youth who were born into the digital age. The accelerated digitalization during the COVID-19 pandemic has further emphasized these inequalities, as many older persons struggled to access essential goods and services - from online vaccination appointment registrations, to pensions, food and medication during lockdowns - if they could not access them online. Our dependence on digital technologies during the pandemic has therefore focused policy attention on the importance of digital inclusion.
The latest UNECE Policy Brief on Ageing examines this ‘digital divide’ between generations and highlights policy priorities for digital inclusion of older persons.
Ensure equal access to goods and services involving digital technology
Policy initiatives that aim at making digital technologies accessible, affordable and available across populations should also include tailored support for the use of everyday services that move online, such as accessing government information and services, e-banking, e-commerce and tele-health services among others.
In Canada, a new Code of Conduct came into force this year, guiding banks to meet the needs of older persons in the delivery of banking services. In Slovenia, a mobile banking vehicle provides face-to-face support to older persons in using their mobile phones and other digital devices to perform online banking services. The Red Cross in Serbia developed a step-by-step guide for the use of selected e-Government services and provides coaching to older persons in their use.
The brief emphasizes the importance of user involvement for more inclusive design. Including older persons, with and without disabilities, in digital technology design processes can improve user-friendliness as well as the relevance of digital technologies if the needs and preferences of older persons are considered. Their active participation can also challenge entrenched ageist stereotypes about the “older technology user” which are often internalised by older persons themselves, negatively affecting self-confidence and discouraging digital engagement.
Enhance digital literacy to reduce the digital skills gaps
Digital skills are a precondition for digital inclusion. Many older people today will have passed their working and personal lives without exposure to digital technologies or routine computer use and without the need to acquire digital skills. Only one in four older Europeans have basic or above basic digital skills, compared to two in three in the age group 35 to 44, three in four among 25-34 year olds and four in five among youth (16-24).
Digital skills divide across generations
Digital skills training to enhance digital literacy for all and especially among older persons is therefore a key policy priority as societies advance digitalisation. This can empower older persons to effectively, safely and securely use, and benefit from, the opportunities provided by digital technologies and the Internet. With its Action Plan to implement the European Pillar of Social Rights issued earlier this year, the European Commission has set the ambitious goal that at least 80 percent of the population aged 16-74 should have at least basic digital skills, considered as a precondition for inclusion and participation in the labour market and society in a digitally-transformed Europe.
A new project in Slovakia intends to analyse, test and increase digital skills among older persons in 2023-2026, with plans to provide free-of-charge basic digital skills training to nine thousand older persons. As part of the project, more digitally literate older persons, “digital champions”, will be enlisted to educate people in care homes and community centres. The Silver Surfer project in Luxembourg already uses the “seniors for seniors” method, enlisting older volunteers, specially trained in Internet security, to train other older persons to safely and securely use digital technology. Other examples promote intergenerational training programmes such as the Austrian “Technology in Brief” project where young people provide low threshold trainings in the use of table devices and smart phones to older persons, close to home.
Leverage the potential of digital technologies for active and healthy ageing
Digitalisation holds significant promise for societies with ageing populations as well as for older persons themselves. Older persons represent a growing market for digital technologies tailored to their needs, ranging from assistive devices, smart living and health monitoring devices, to digital advancements in the health and care sectors that can improve service delivery in the face of growing demand. The Policy Brief discusses the value of digital communications in reducing loneliness and enhancing social connections, an issue which has received growing policy attention during the COVID-19 pandemic, where the social distancing and confinement measures affecting all age groups exacerbated the social isolation and loneliness experienced by many older populations.
Ensure the protection of human rights of older persons in the digital era
While digitalisation brings multiple opportunities for ageing populations, it is crucial to effectively address associated risks. Digital advancements, including in the health and care sectors, need to be designed in a way that creates ethical, transparent and safe digital environments and services and protect the human rights of older persons, including to dignity, autonomy, privacy, and free and informed consent to the use of digital technology, including by the most vulnerable. To support older people in weighing the pros and cons of digital technology use, a new German project on Artificial Intelligence (AI) aims to provide older persons with a balanced view on the use of artificial intelligence and enable them to make confident decisions about whether or how they wish to use AI-based technologies in their everyday lives. In 16 “internet experience locations” across Germany, people can test devices, get advice and obtain information.
The choice to opt out of the use of digital technologies needs to remain, and maintaining continued offline access to essential services and human contact should be ensured.
According to data from the 2019 Fundamental Rights Survey, only one in five survey respondents aged 75 and older in the European Union at least occasionally engaged in Internet activities, compared to 98 per cent of those between the ages of 16 and 29. Barriers to digital engagement and technology use in older age are multifaceted. They include lack of access to digital devices or the Internet, lack of adequate digital skills, experience, and self-confidence; lack of motivation and interest and perceived lack of relevance of digital technology to their needs and preferences; but also the onset of physical or cognitive impairments in later life and inaccessible technology design that renders digital engagement more challenging.
The 2021 UN International Day of Older Persons, celebrated on 1 October, will focus on the theme “Digital Equity for All Ages”. For more information, visit 2021 UNIDOP: “Digital Equity for All Ages” | United Nations For Ageing