Connecting in a connected world

10th November 2020

In her first monthly Blog, Alison Benzimra, Manager of The Whiteley Foundation for Ageing Well, explores how technology can be used to not only to help us engage better with older people but by enabling them to develop their digital skills and build confidence, could help turn one of the challenges of our age into an opportunity for cross-generational success.

Our reliance on technology is nothing new. Smartphones, apps and Google have infiltrated our daily vocabulary for many years. COVID-19 just turbo-charged how we use technology to connect with one another. When rapport is not established on bandwidth and trust is not embedded into a Zoom link, how do we engage with older people in our increasingly digitalised world?

Exploring the digital connection

In 2016, a report from the Human Rights Council of the United Nations General Assembly declared access to the internet to be a basic human right, integral to allowing individuals to “exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression.” There are a multitude of reasons for digital exclusion; no wifi, no access to devices, financial constraints and physical disability to name but a few. Over the past few weeks, The Whiteley Foundation has been fortunate to partner with organisations to explore older people’s experiences of technology.

Two Whiteley residents will be participating in a study commissioned by The Young Foundation to understand people’s experiences of COVID who have limited access to internet. As one of the residents has macular degeneration, her situation will help identify the challenges faced by individuals with deteriorating vision.

The Office of National Statistics estimates there will be an additional 8.2 million people aged 65 years and over in the UK in 50 years’ time – a population roughly the size of present-day London. It is imperative that the development of technological services and products have these older adults at the heart of their design process.

Whiteley Village was a showcase partner in the Healthy Ageing by Design Residency webinar hosted by Aging 2.0 London and Ageable. The webinar provided incredible learning, as the mic was handed over to older people who have an array of experiences and attitudes towards technology. Along the spectrum of self-described techno-sceptics, techno-converts and techno-enthusiasts, it is evident that across the board older people are online.

Doing their banking and shopping online, their smart phones ping with notifications from social media apps. They are not the digital dodos that they are often portrayed in popular culture. However, when you tease away the backstory from their daily use it becomes apparent that upskilling and confidence are often at the heart of the hesitancy of adopting new technological applications. As one participant so eloquently stated, “it is less about competence and more about confidence.” Her statement highlights the residual impact of lack of training for older workers.

A recent report by the Centre of Ageing Better stated that the UK has one of the lowest levels of on-the-job training for older workers in the OECD. Upskilling is a muscle that needs to be exercised otherwise it atrophies. Attending the webinar, was Jenny Marshall from Open Age, an organisation which provides weekly activities to over 4,500 older members across West London. Jenny outlined how Open Age pivoted their community-centre activities onto online platforms as a result of COVID. Training their members how to use Zoom, Open Age has been able to continue with activities by upskilling over 1,000 of their members. This sharing between older adults and organisations which address their needs will strengthen inclusive design going forward.

In understanding older people’s adoption of technology, we need to get to the heart of their motivation for needing to use it. This year, Whiteley Village’s church hosted a Zoom Remembrance Day service. Despite the interference of audio echo and unmuted microphones, this human factor made the online service that much more meaningful. As the final soulful notes of the “Last Post” faded into a shared reflective silence across our screens, we were reminded that although we were not in each other’s physical company, technology facilitated a sense of community and connection.

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