It is probable that older people have always felt somewhat side-lined and supplanted by rising generations, but at least in the past age conferred a senior place in society and older people were objects of respect and deference. Elaborate codes of conduct and protocol ensured that they were given precedence in everything from seating plans to lists, announcements and introductions, and they were treated with delicacy and consideration. It was universally recognised that they had amassed wisdom and experience (though this was not inevitably the case) and were therefore well-placed to advise and guide younger people, who were ready and willing to take direction.
But the 21st century has seen a profound reversal in these social norms. Mass media and social media increasingly purvey a youth-orientated view of the world and, even if older people are given media space, it is generally because they have defied their age and hung on to their youthful looks, enthusiasm and energy. The pace of technological change has accelerated alarmingly; a generation who grew up with steam trains and wirelesses, for whom a family car or household telephone was a rare luxury, have rapidly passed through a bewildering array of changes, including televisions, air travel, personal computers and mobile phones. The biggest change of all is, of course, the internet and the ways in which it has permeated every aspect of our daily life are legion.
According to a 2022 Ofcom report, 6 per cent of households in the UK have no internet access, while 73 per cent of people aged over sixty-five use the internet at home, leaving a substantial 27 per cent of older people disenfranchised and overlooked.
We’re all aware that an ability to survive in the digital world has become an increasingly important life skill. The administration of daily life is now firmly in the realm of the internet, from banking and paying household bills to communicating with Government and local government departments, booking travel tickets, making medical appointments and obtaining repeat prescriptions. Online tools are an invaluable way of comparing the prices of utilities, broadband and insurance; without access to this information, customers are likely to pay a much higher premium for daily necessities.
With no internet older people, who might also have eschewed the world of mobile phones, find themselves reliant on landlines. Telephone answering systems are now chronically undermanned and dauntingly complex. Callers are confronted with a bewildering list of options, asked to navigate their way through myriad menus, and often left holding on for an unconscionably long time before being passed to the wrong department. Some companies simply refuse to recognise that any of their customers do not use the internet and provide no analogue help or assistance.
Against this background it behoves all of us who operate in a customer-facing role to be hyper-aware of the difficulties that older people may be experiencing. Breezily advising someone to just “go online and put in your details” is deeply unhelpful and it is always polite to enquire if someone has access to the internet and, if they don’t, to to do your best to help them.
This requires patience and empathy. Try to put yourself in their shoes and understand how anxious and precarious they must feel as they try to steer a course through a daunting digital world. Be aware that becoming flustered will only make them less able to cope and use phrases like “take your time” and “don’t worry, I’m still here” to calm anxiety.
Try not to present them with dead ends (eg “we don’t take cheques any more; it’s online payments only” or “we can only deal with these enquiries through our website”). Do your utmost to find other ways of accommodating them and suggesting alternative ways they can approach the issue.
Don’t make assumptions: it’s preposterous to tell someone with mobility problems to “pop down to the post office”. You need to make a gentle enquiry first about access and mobility, eg “Do you have a post office nearby and are you able to get to it?”.
Enunciate slowly and clearly, but don’t shout. It will soon become apparent if you are dealing with someone with hearing difficulties, but making a general assumption is insulting.
If you have an older person who is not able to access the internet in your life (a family member, friend or neighbour), it is always a good idea to offer your services as a digital assistant. Just mention that you’re available and then make a habit of doing a regular digital screening – that means enquiring about all the utilities and services that are being used and ensuring that the older person has not become ensnared in out-of-date, unsuitable and expensive contracts.
If you are held in complete trust, you can also help with digital banking and online payments.
You might even be able to initiate your friend or relative into the mysteries of the internet, but you should only do this if they’re willing to learn, robust and receptive to the idea. Bear in mind that learning this skill in old age is very challenging and remind yourself that you will need to be extremely patient and reassuring. Using a computer or smartphone might well feel like second nature to you, but it is a completely alien technology to the uninitiated.
Haranguing an unwilling listener about the undoubted benefits of the online world is deeply off-putting and possibly quite confusing. Gently pointing out that certain activities would be less stressful online might be more persuasive.
Bear in mind that the internet has opened us all up to ever more creative forms of fraud and deceit. Older people are vulnerable to plausible fraudsters who cold-call them and persuade them to give away vitally important security information, or to download software or click on links, giving criminals access to bank accounts or computers. It is scarcely surprising that some older people are extremely wary of the whole digital world, and it would be foolish to show them how to access it if you are worried that they will fall prey to internet scams. First and foremost, they must be receptive to your warnings and suspicious of all unsolicited contact.
If you do decide to help someone get online, remember the following:
•Establish what the person wants to do online and make this a priority. Getting side tracked by the multiple possibilities of the internet might be mind-blowing but also disheartening.
•Spend some time setting up the computer, tablet or smartphone so that it is tailored to the user’s needs, giving them easy access to apps and the internet browser. Set up the browser home page with bookmarks to the user’s favourite sites. Ensure that the browser typeface is set to a legible font.
•Set the browser to remember passwords and log-ons on frequently visited sites. The demand for passwords is frequently seen by the uninitiated as an insurmountable challenge – they have been written down somewhere, are mis-typed or mis-remembered. Let the technology do the work.
•Mind your language. Words like ‘icon’, ‘browser’, ‘cursor’, ‘reboot’ are part of everyday parlance, but may very well be baffling to a new user. You might find words like ‘little picture’, ‘exploring window’, ‘pointy arrow’, ‘start up again’ are more useful. This may feel patronising, but if you have established that digital terminology is incomprehensible, creative language will be a pragmatic alternative.
•Remember that it is always easier to learn if you are performing a task, rather than observing someone else. Sitting passively while watching you darting around the screen with rapid clicks of your mouse or rattling out commands on a keyboard may feel daunting. Instead, sit your pupil down in front of the screen and let him/her wield the mouse from the outset. Remember an endless supply of patience is a virtue. Make encouraging remarks and reassure your pupil that it will take time to master this new skill and never allow your frustration with their slowness or incomprehension to show.
•Once you are confident that they are in control, and only then, you can introduce them to the world of online banking and online shopping but remember that this must be accompanied with dire warnings about fraud awareness and safety online.
•You may have to accept that you can bring your pupil to the point where they are able to send an email and navigate to a website and no further. Even if you are still needed for other more challenging digital tasks, you have at least opened a little window into a new world.
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