How can we ensure digital inclusion for older adults? 

Image: Georg Arthur Pflueger/Unsplash
  • October 1 is the International Day of Older Persons, and this year’s theme is “Digital Equity for All Ages.”
  • As services increasingly go digital, older people risk missing out.
  • Here are six insights from the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on Healthy Ageing and Longevity on how we can ensure digital inclusion for older adults.

On average, people around the world are living longer. In 2020, 727 million persons were aged 65 years or older and the population aged 65 years or over is projected to double to reach over 1.5 billion by 2050, a 16.3 per cent increase.

Internet usage
Internet usage
Image: ITU

As we are living longer, our world is becoming increasingly digital. According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), 4.1 billion people were connected to the internet in 2019 and increasing. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) can enable healthy and active ageing by facilitating access to information, health and healthcare, socio-economic participation and other factors that promote full engagement and participation as we age.

Unfortunately, half of the global population still lack access to the internet. Although many older adults are frequent users of information and communication technologies (ICTs), many still lack access, and the pace of digital innovation is yet to be inclusive of their needs. COVID-19 accelerated this challenge as digital services including telehealth and banking became increasingly the norm.

"Shopping, medical consultations, requesting municipal services - with increasing digitalization and a pandemic that fast-forwarded this process, many everyday activities have become more complicated for the less digitally literate," explains Dubravka Suica, Vice-President for Democracy and Demography, European Commission.

"This is an obstacle for participation by many older persons," Suica continues. "It requires actions and offers opportunities, for instance, for participation in public life (think: elections, political debates online), economic activities (like buying / selling goods and services) and societal inclusion (personal exchanges, remote sports coaching, or the like)."

We must address the gaps and challenges that prevent older persons from benefiting from the digital transformation. We must also recognize the age diversity of this broad and diverse cohort -adoption rates vary by age, ethnicity, education, computer literacy, cognitive capacity and income. In addition, we must develop measures for emerging new risks of misinformation, cybercrimes, safety, and privacy issues to create a more inclusive digital future for all.

"Digital inclusion needs to make participation of all ages technically and practically possible," Suica says. "It also requires older persons to remain open, learn to live and work with digital tools. Like in so many areas, intergenerational support – here from young to old – is fundamental."

This year the theme of the United Nations International Day of Older Persons (UNIDOP) on 1 October is “Digital Equity for All Ages.” We asked members of the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on Healthy Ageing and Longevity to provide insight on how we can ensure digital inclusion for older adults. Here’s what they said.

Design inclusive technology

Alison Bryant, Senior Vice-President, Research & Debra Whitman, EVP and Chief Public Policy Officer, AARP

Barriers to technology adoptions
Barriers to technology adoptions
Image: AARP

Ensuring digital inclusion for older adults means overcoming five key barriers: access, installation, knowledge, design, and trust. Providing high-speed, low-cost internet and devices, along with installation and support, is foundational for addressing connectedness. Consumers need digital literacy programs and updated information on relevant technology.

The technology itself must be inclusively designed for everyone, while considering the unique needs of older adults. Finally, people must have confidence that their privacy and personal data will be secure and ethically used. No one entity can solve these challenges alone, so collaboration and a public-private approach to reaching digital equity is imperative.

Stop ageism

Alana Officer, Unit Head, Demographic Change and Healthy Ageing, World Health Organization

Stop ageism. One in two people globally are ageist against older people. Ageism is a serious barrier to digital inclusion. Ageism limits how we think about older people and ICT (e.g., older people are not technically savvy), the way we frame the problems (e.g., older people can’t learn) and the solutions that we find.

Older people use technology. But not all older people have equal access to technology or the associated health and social benefits including better mental health, increased physical activity, and more social interactions. #AWorld4AllAges is a world that ensures digital inclusion for older people.

Ensure access for better health

Prevention and management of health conditions is important for ensuring digital inclusion for older adults. Vision impairment, joint diseases, hearing impairment and cognitive impairment are some common health conditions which can impede the use of digital devices or services among older adults. In a national survey from Singapore, nearly 1 in 10 older adults had health-related difficulty in internet use.

Furthermore, such older adults, versus those without health-related difficulty in internet use, had a lower quality of life. As health conditions can hinder the use of digital devices or services even among those with digital literacy and digital access, addressing them for digital inclusion for older adults is salient.

Question data equality

Maliha Hashmi, Prominent Health Leader, KSA; Doctor of Law, Jurisprudence, Health Systems Designs & Health Regulations, Harvard Law School

Internet use
Image: Pew

Diversity and Inclusion will be key pillars that will drive greater digital equity for all ages. Some simple steps can be taken to manage technology that is accessible to everyone. First, we need to put the end-user at the center of the universe. We need to understand that all ages have unique needs. Next, there is a need to ensure that the apps, technologies, platforms are developed with data sets that cater to all ages.

We need to ask who is bringing the data and from where, does the data showcase equity for all ages, equality, gender duality, minority inclusion, is the data set a true representation of a population or is it biased? This knowledge will become essential for digital equity in data set collection—ensuring a ‘truly’ mixed data set in apps, platforms, and innovative technology.

Consider the needs of older persons in the corporate world

David Alexander Walcott, Founder and Managing Partner, Novamed; World Economic Forum Young Global Leader

Development of a corporate culture that considers the digital needs of older persons. We now live in an increasingly digitalized world, accelerated by the pandemic, where everyday services have moved online and older persons, who are often less digitally connected than those born in the digital age, risk being excluded.

In parallel with our prioritization for gender equity and representation, we must incentivize the development of a culture that considers the needs of older persons in the corporate world. This will encourage the funding of digital upskilling of older persons and enables their participation in society as fully-fledged digital citizens who are able to use the internet to maintain their independence, participate in social activity and engage productively with the new world.

Don't leave anyone behind

Jane Barratt, Secretary-General, International Federation on Ageing

Digitalization is one of the most powerful drivers and potential enablers of positive change across generations toward health ageing populations. The pandemic has served as a propellant accelerating the adoption of devices, models, and digitalization faster than might have otherwise occurred.

Digital access at home and in facilities is now equally critical to our capacity and quality of life, but only if the digital systems and users engage and give voice to the barriers. The global challenge and urgent call for action to safeguard digital inclusion for older adults is to ensure that nearly half of the world’s population has internet connectivity so that no days are lost opportunities.

Offer digital literacy courses

Vigneswari, Consultant, and Adrienne Mendenhall, Director, Business Development, ACCESS Health International

Technological advances are increasingly becoming entrenched in our lifestyles and are accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is especially true for older adults, who use digital technology to connect socially, access information instantly and perform everyday tasks. Yet there may still be a learning curve.

It is essential that governments, schools, and industry offer digital literacy courses specifically for older adults, competitive (affordable!) pricing for internet broadband and wifi, strong consumer protection laws, and privacy and security terms that are conveyed clearly and transparently. Also, universal design is central to capturing the market opportunity of an older digitally savvy population.

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