What about older people who aren’t online?

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What is digital poverty, and what does it mean in a time of crisis?

Betty is 99 and daily uses her iPad, sending and receiving emails. But she is probably an exception. Take Mary for example. She is 96, grateful still to have her memory, mobility and independence intact, but up to now has resisted any kind of tablet or smartphone. Her daughter installed Wifi in the house years ago for visitors, but Mary says “I’m far too old to learn about the internet. I’m happy with the papers and the radio.”

At the moment this means she can’t see her family, may find it harder to access medical help, can’t access shopping deliveries and can’t go to ‘virtual’ church. National ONS figures from 2018 showed a fairly even split: almost half aged 65+ used internet shopping, and half aged 75+ had no access to the internet whatsoever. Mary’s not on her own.

Churches, now they have been told not to gather in person, have embraced the digital opportunity far faster than they ever would have predicted. But are some in the older generation being left behind?

“Digital poverty” is the term used for social exclusion due to lack of internet. A survey of ‘Technology in Later Life’ found that older people balance the pros (information, feeling secure) against the cons (worries about privacy, not knowing how to use it). For people to start going online more they needed to know the that the benefits outweigh the cost.

If older people in your community are not able to access digital tools – even just because there isn’t enough bandwidth, a major issue in rural areas – it more requires intentional effort:

• Some vicars have posted letters, liturgies and prayers.
• Many are calling on the landline [See our recent blog about making sure older people get a phone call].
• As well as food, you could deliver books, cards and leaflets
• Some churches are ringing the bell as a regular call to prayer
• Is there someone who could set them up with a Wifi connection using a router and their phone line? BT have a dedicated page on help here.
• The BBC put together suggestions of the best simple devices to get older people online here. 

Mary succumbed and was given a Kindle. It means she can Skype with her great grandchildren and get quick access to the headlines. She still refuses to use social media.

Her favourite daily input, however, is still from her old daily devotional book, ‘Streams in the Desert’, first published in 1925 by the recently widowed Mrs Charles Cowman. The reading on 20 March included this:

“Amid manifold trials, souls which love God will find reasons for bounding, leaping job. Though deep call to deep, yet the Lord’s song will be heard through the night. And it is possible in the darkest hour that ever swept a human life to bless the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”