Read about the other sessions in the Overcoming Digital Divides workshop series

Lockdown and physical distancing measures during the COVID-19 pandemic have increased social isolation for many Canadians. This isolation can be especially acute for older adults without the devices and internet connection they need to stay connected, or to access digital health services. Older adults are less likely than younger people to have internet services at sufficient speed. The third part of the Ryerson Leadership Lab’s Overcoming Digital Divides workshop series explored how we can close gaps in internet adoption and digital literacy for older adults during and after the pandemic.

The pandemic has taken an especially harsh toll on older adults. The risks of becoming seriously ill with COVID-19 increase significantly with age. More than half of excess deaths reported by Statistics Canada between March and June 2020 were individuals aged 85 and older, and 36 per cent were aged 65-84. Moreover, only five per cent of older adults live in long-term care homes, yet residents of these facilities account for more than 60 per cent of COVID-related deaths across Canada.

Older adults living in congregate settings and long-term care have also had to endure restrictions on visits from family and friends, and that heightened social isolation results in increased anxiety and loneliness. Prior to the pandemic, older adults with mental health conditions reported lower levels of social support, and the situation is likely to have worsened amid even more isolation and lack of online access.

The pandemic has shown us why gaps in internet adoption for older adults is a problem we can no longer ignore.

Older adults interested in digital spaces but lack resources

For older adults requiring day-to-day assistance during an isolating pandemic, access to supportive technologies and online resources is nothing short of a need, says Michel Mersereau, post-doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information. Even the most routine activities and errands, including banking, shopping and social interaction, are now delivered online, making access to the internet and online services indispensable, he added.

It’s commonly assumed that older adults are not that interested in digital spaces, but Mersereau’s research found otherwise. Almost all the residents of a community housing institution in Toronto who engaged with online applications at the facility later adopted internet services at home, he found. Participants in the study also reported that their domestic and personal routines became more efficient and organized after having a home internet connection. Once comfortable with navigating online spaces, older adults are more interested in improving their digital skills and literacy than is often assumed, added Eric Craven, community development librarian and digital literacy project coordinator at the Atwater Library and Computer Centre.

Since the pandemic forced many essential services to shift online, older adults have been reporting significant barriers to accessing the support services and health information they need, according to research conducted by Karen Wong, a researcher at the Science and Technology for Aging Research Institute. She says their difficulties accessing online resources relates to three primary issues: they lack, 1) a sufficiently fast internet connection; 2) the necessary equipment for connecting; and 3) the digital literacy skills required to easily navigate online spaces and protect their information.

A number of organizations and grassroots initiatives are working to address these three concerns. However, insufficient collaboration between community supports, front-line workers and personal support staff often leads to inadequate initiatives that fail to effectively address older adults’ multifaceted digital challenges, Wong said. With many organizations working in silos to address the same problem, many older adults are not aware of the digital assistance programs available to them, added Caroline Grammer, professor at Seneca College’s Department of Community Services.

Many of these organizations are also significantly underfunded. Volunteer and project-based work is often disrupted by lack of funds, preventing much-needed assistance from reaching vulnerable older adults, Grammer said.

Grammer’s ongoing research has found that when asked about their digital experience in isolation following COVID-19 lockdowns, older adults said they face more barriers than just a lack of access to high-speed internet. For instance, they prefer to use tablet devices rather than smartphones due to difficulties seeing small fonts and typing on a small touchscreen. Functional disabilities, including sensory and cognitive impairments, also prevent a significant proportion of older adults from effectively using technological or digital tools, even when an internet connection and devices are available, Grammer said. They often rely on front-line health workers and personal support staff to help set up their devices and connections, particularly long-term care residents who were isolated in their rooms without any social interactions or visits from family during pandemic lockdowns.

An important measure of the effectiveness of our pandemic recovery strategy should be its inclusivity and ability to address underserved communities’ needs. As part of that, more funding should be directed toward expanding digital literacy programs that are specifically tailored for older adults and improving coordination between pre-existing grassroots and public initiatives.

Developing programs that target older adult needs

Older adults are a target-based learning group, meaning they will engage with technology and seek to improve their digital skills if they believe it will benefit their everyday lives. Digital literacy programs will effectively attract older adults if they consider the specific needs of this unique group. Older adults generally look for programs that explain the language of technology and how to protect their safety online, according to Grammer. Participant-led projects allow them to select the kinds of activities they are interested in pursuing, thereby empowering them to take charge of their digital development and accommodating for different interests and abilities, Craven added.

Older adults should also be consulted on how online programs can best address their needs, especially because most web designers and technology developers are much younger, Grammer said. They can be easily frustrated if online programs are not straightforward or if the user experience design does not enable quick navigation. They are also less likely to organize their finances online or trust banking services, which means they may not feel comfortable adopting low-income assistance programs that require them to disclose sensitive financial information, she added.

Older adults are often anxious about operating devices without having prior experience, Craven said. Therefore, programming should first make participants feel comfortable asking questions and taking the time to navigate complicated software.

New technologies and online spaces are also presented and advertised in ways that generally exclude older adults, she added. Digital literacy issues related to older adults are usually framed around health matters, but their involvement with technology includes more than just accessing health resources. For instance, programs that use technology to expand their creativity and communication skills can allow them to view technology and the internet as part of their self-expression and personal development.

Older adults have been marginalized from conversations around digital access and equity for too long. The pandemic has shown us why gaps in internet adoption for older adults is a problem we can no longer ignore. An important measure of the effectiveness of our pandemic recovery strategy should be its inclusivity and ability to address underserved communities’ needs. As part of that, more funding should be directed toward expanding digital literacy programs that are specifically tailored for older adults and improving coordination between pre-existing grassroots and public initiatives. Providing a quality of life that allows everyone in Canada to age with independence and dignity is both necessary and achievable in our post-pandemic, digitized world.

Author(s)

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Nour Abdelaal is a Policy and Research Assistant at the Ryerson Leadership Lab, specializing in technology and cybersecurity, and was formerly a Political Assistant at the U.S. Consulate General in Toronto.

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Sam Andrey is Director of Policy and Research at Ryerson Leadership Lab.