Pandemic worsening social and digital equality for older Aussies

The pandemic has forced thousands of older Australians to use technology they would not otherwise be comfortable using.

Now they are at risk of being left out in the cold, with an ever-growing digital divide limiting their community access and social engagement, say advocates.

For most, using a smartphone to check in or to prove vaccination status is quickly becoming second nature; for others though, it presents a challenge.

The need to check in and to go online to check for COVID exposure sites and information has accelerated learning for many, but for others, it has done the opposite.

Some have become disconnected and pushed into isolation because they don’t use or own technology that has become essential.

“Being on the wrong side of the digital divide impacts quality of life, access to important information, and finding out about opportunities to get involved in the community,” writes Jane Mussared for InDaily.

“For most of their lives, older people have had real human interaction when accessing services. Replacing this with impersonal online systems packs a triple punch for many older Australians.”

With states and borders reopening, there are concerns this increasing reliance on smartphones will prevent many older Australians from being able to reconnect.

“Some of the really, really old people, they’ve never been used to technology and it’s a big step for them and a different way of thinking and getting used to what they have to do,” Mathers House volunteer Helen Vojacek told the ABC.

“And they’re easily thrown if it doesn’t work.”

Around 10 per cent of the population does not use or have access to the internet, according to Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) data.

While many of the 2.5 million Australians who are not online will be digitally disadvantaged, the group that is of particular concern is older Australians, says the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA).

“Older people have a higher risk of developing severe health complications from COVID-19 and have been advised to be extra vigilant in ensuring they physically isolate themselves,” write Chris Wilson and Jo Barraket in the CEDA article How COVID-19 is worsening digital inequality.

“Given their vulnerability, it is likely they will be advised to continue such isolation even after restrictions are lifted for others.

“Sadly, older Australians are more likely to lack the effective and affordable internet access and digital abilities that would enable them to use existing and emerging online services that others are drawing on to reduce the hardships generated by physical isolation – such as online retail, telehealth, video calling and digitised events and cultural collections.”

And with domestic and international travel restarting, some people will also need help navigating the challenges of proving vaccination status before heading overseas and while they are there.

Read: What you need to do to be vaccination passport ready

One such potential traveller is pensioner Carolyn Neilson.

“Where I live is a place called HOPES – Housing Options for People needing Extra Support – and the office lady there has done my initial certificate and my sister-in-law has kindly put it on my phone,” says Ms Neilson.

“I’m not techno savvy and I rely on the office staff and my sister-in-law.

“My great-nephew is already swiping … he is three [years old], but I’m out of my comfort zone.”

Another pensioner, Grahame Rouleston, wants to travel to Europe with his wife to see family. He may be able to get help at home but is concerned about how he will fulfil his requirements once he is overseas.

“She wants to go home, she’s 74, not that well, so she’s keen to get over there and see her family in Ireland and Manchester and Bristol, she’s got family all over the place,” he said.

“It’s going to be different everywhere. We’re just going to have to learn it in advance, otherwise you look awfully silly and very stranded.”

Read: How to add proof of COVID-19 vaccinations to your device

The Council on the Ageing (COTA) says the government needs to do more to make processes more accessible.

One of the challenges facing older Australians is that most of the official information has only been published online, which increases societal reliance on smartphones and internet savvy.

“Policy-makers generally need to think outside their square and think about the implications to a broader community,” says COTA Tasmania chief executive Sue Leitch.

“Some people don’t have smartphones, they have older mobile phones, they’re not used to actually taking their phones with them all the time.

“We know that people in lower socio-economic circumstances may only have phones that have very low data, if any data.

“We also know that people do live in regions that have low network strength and so access to online services is challenging, and we know there are people who have literacy issues beyond digital literacy.”

Pensioner Jonothan Davis does not own a mobile phone and signs into shops and venues ‘the old-fashioned way’ – paper forms.

“When you have to go and ask for it at the front of the counter, you feel like you’re second rate,” he says.

“And many people walking into the supermarket, older people, they don’t sign in at all because they know it takes too long.

“The reliance on smartphones is becoming like eventually you won’t be able to live a normal life if you haven’t got one.”

His friend, Margaret Grieve, has also faced tech challenges during the pandemic.

“The problem I have sometimes is I’ve got arthritis in my hands, fingers, and so when I touch the app it doesn’t do anything,” she said.

“I also have a tremor in my hand, the older you get the more problems there can be.

“If it was a card you could pop into your wallet it would be much easier.”

While paper copies of vaccination certificates can be obtained through Services Australia or the National Immunisation Register, COTA wants to see other solutions investigated.

Read: Loophole revealed in Australia’s vaccine certificates

The group suggests that GPs should be able to issue certified vaccine certificates or a smart Medicare card containing vaccine information.

In the meantime, some older Australians are forced to rely on tech-savvy friends and family members, or trusted community organisations for help accessing online services.

“We are dealing with people’s sensitive information so it does need to be a trusted organisation when we’re accessing data such as that,” says COTA.

“It’s part of the support that we give to people as well, about being careful with their data.”

Do you feel left out by the reliance on smartphones and the internet to get around in the COVID-normal world? Why not share your opinions in the comments section below?

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.
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