The move to online services can make it harder for older people who are 'offline' to access vital services and could deter people from seeking the support they need. New figures published in our report, ‘Later life in a digital world’ show a clear link between internet use, socio-economic group and age, providing evidence that it is the poorest older people who are most likely to be offline – and therefore lose out on essential services.
Around four out of five people aged 75 and over in the lowest socio-economic groups do not currently use the internet. Although increasing numbers of older people are getting online, there remains a stark difference in internet use between the youngest and oldest age groups. Virtually all young adults have recently used the internet (99%), but this falls to 71% of those aged 65 to 74 and just 33% of those aged 75 and over.
The move to online services presents a further barrier for those who most need support. Every year, some of the poorest older people in the UK miss out on £3.7 billion of pension credit and housing benefit alone – either because they don’t realise they are entitled, feel too proud or embarrassed to claim, or because they believe the claiming process is too complicated and they don’t like asking for help.
In more and more areas, people are encouraged to claim housing benefit online. The increased pressure is likely to be an additional barrier to obtaining support unless suitable and easily accessible alternate ways to claim are always available.
Despite the Government’s pledge to ensure ‘assisted digital’ support for those who are not online, people who do not use the internet can still often be at a disadvantage. For example, the new HMRC Marriage Allowance – which lets people who are married or in civil partnerships transfer unused personal tax allowance to their partner – was launched in April 2015 originally as an exclusively online service. A telephone option is now available but has been given little publicity. This is all the more surprising, given that over a third of couples who are expected to benefit from the allowance are pensioners.
To understand more about the digital divide in later life, we undertook some qualitative research with older users and non-users of the internet. The majority of the internet users felt that the internet is hugely positive, making life easier, more convenient and cheaper, whilst also helping them to keep in touch with friends and family, and feel better informed.
The research with non-internet users revealed deeply entrenched barriers to use the internet. Many simply feel that the internet is ‘not for them’ and any benefits are outweighed by major barriers to being online – most do not believe that there is anything lacking in their lives because they are not online and raised issues such as a lack of digital skills and security, with many concerned that the internet is an ‘unsafe’ place.
The so-called advantages to being online are not necessarily seen in the same way by non-users. For example, while internet users generally feel that being online is more convenient and saves time, those older people who are not online typically prefer to do their shopping or other chores in person as they feel it offers the benefits of getting out of the house and meeting people face-to-face. Given the epidemic of loneliness among older people in this country, perhaps this is not so surprising.
Even among those who have no interest in the internet, some participants reported feeling frustrated that at times it is becoming difficult to live in an increasingly digital world. Some have accessed the internet via friends and family out of necessity but while this help is generally appreciated, some reported feeling inadequate and embarrassed at having to ask for help to complete a simple task.
Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK said that ‘In order to ensure that those who do not use the internet are not disadvantaged by digital transformation in the public and private sectors, we need three complementary approaches: greater support from Government and the industry to increase digital inclusion, great user-friendly technology and design, and appropriate alternative access for people who are not online’
We are calling on organisations that provide online services to recognise that is it not always possible or appropriate to suggest people get help from others.
Age UK delivers a number of UK-wide digital inclusion programmes and campaigns working with many local and national partners. We support those in later life who want to go online to benefit from internet access and technologies at all stages of engagement through taster sessions, on-going courses and outreach programmes.
For more information or one of our free guides to help people stay safe online and make the most of the internet, call Age UK Advice free of charge on 0800 169 65 65 or if you have internet access visit www.ageuk.org.uk/work-and-learning/technology-and-internet