Bridging the new digital divide - social contact among older adults

The National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom has been pushing tech companies to help bridge the connectivity divide that has left many older adults socially stranded during this period of quarantine – according to TechCrunch.

In reaction to the request, Facebook will give 20,050 of its own Portal video-calling devices to hospitals, nursing homes, hospices and other medical facilities throughout the United Kingdom. These devices intend to reduce the technological constraints so that users are able to communicate with friends, family and medical providers more easily in the current pandemic. The NHS also looked into the idea of using 4G hotspots or tables with cellular connections to support nursing homes, who have banned outside visitors as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19. Of course, this leaves residents with even less social contact.

Quarantine has forced activities to move online, but this has meant that a large number of older adults have been left behind as a result of the learning curve affiliated with new technologies. In the United States, only 28% of people born before 1945 (known as the silent generation) and 59% of Boomers (born between 1946-1964) use social media, in comparison with 86% of millennials. This pattern of the older generation having lower adoption rates, still remains true for smartphones, tablets and smart speakers.

Technological capability and connectivity access have become a necessity now that the majority of the world’s populations are in quarantine – as they increasingly access healthcare, religious services, education, work, entertainment and social interactions. The limited access to digital life (for some) are highlighting underlying issues which previously existed but now present themselves in a different way. For example, the high levels of loneliness observed in older adults.

Such initiatives, like that proposed by the NHS are helping to find solutions to the digital divide now, however, tech companies should ensure that they promote user-friendly interfaces to make long-term progress. At the beginning of the pandemic, the US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, asked citizens to help their elderly neighbours and relatives set up their technology and troubleshoot to ensure access to telemedicine. While these sorts of initiatives help, it is risky to rely on volunteerism to facilitate access to critical services. Tech companies stand to serve a huge market in the long-term by tailoring products to less tech-savvy consumers, particularly as we expect quarantine to promote a lasting adoption of telehealth and remote work applications. Tech companies can better serve this market with something as simple as CAPTCHA alternatives for the visually impaired, or something as complex as conversational AI, advanced enough to help communication flow more easily.