Digital access for seniors and the elderly

CHOICE is looking into the issue of older and elderly Australians not being able to use the online services and tools offered by businesses, many of which don’t make it easy for this group of customers. Have you or a parent or an older friend struggled to navigate the digital world?

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Yes.

What we have found from our own family member (a parent) is that they tend to lose confidence as they get older. It is also more difficult to deal with change. We have found that challenges fall into the following:

  1. online business/government changing their online portals so that they look different. While these changes through updating system platforms or to keep websites looking ‘fresher’ and following ‘latest style’ trends. For someone who is struggling with online services, changes can make a website look new/different and increase frustrations associated with their use. The updated webpage may become different and challenging for one to work out new pathways or processes to navigate through the website.
  2. businesses/government suggesting that customers to do things through their online portals. It could be to verify something (e.g. changes to government or business polices requiring identity verification), pay something (e.g. logging in to one’s account to make an online payment) or retrieve something (e.g. bills). Every website is different and can be a overwhelming exercise to become familiar with the layout of each website or unique processes adopted by each business/government department.

If one is losing confidence and/or unable to deal with change, both the above can make simple online transactions daunting and stressful. This is what our family member experiences regularly when trying to do things online.

We have found with out own family member that we try and find the way to do the transaction using old school methods, such as calling over the phone or sending information by slow mail. Unfortunately many businesses/government departments are moving towards more and more activities online and the traditional way of doing things is falling by the wayside. I believe as the Australian population continues to age, the challenges and frustrations will increase.

The other challenges are smart devices - where many things are heading (phones, TVs etc). While for younger generations adapting to a new device is easy, it can be show stopping struggle for the older generation.

Edit (5/11/2022): I should note that our parent outlined above was competent in use of Windows computers and technology generally, and has been using computers for over 40 years in the work and home environment. It is only more recently as age is catching up, that confidence and dealing with change has been significantly affected. I am not sure why, but could be due to health issues or unable to keep up with the rapid changes in the past decade of the migration of many transactions/communications, whether business or personal related, to the digital environment. We also know of other seniors of similar age who have had the same problems with losing confidence over time, while others seem to take using digital technologies and adapting to changes in their stride.

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Great insights phb - thanks,

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I struggled to try to help my elderly parent get online at least for the purposes of email and finding info.

It was just an alien world to her.

OK with the simple specific-purpose user interfaces like on digital TV or microwave ovens, but the sheer complexity of things like Windows just baffled her. Even smart phones are a challenge.

We youngsters have grown up with computers at school, Uni, work, games, and social media, but many of the elderly have not.

Also the continuous media reporting of hacking, and personal details being exposed just scared her off the online world.

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Be careful of lumping all elderly as unable to use online services. While I took to it like a duck to water, as an early adaptor all my life; Mr Z is a digital dinosaur until I introduced him to things he liked - YouTube, Google, online machinery sites. He does things he is comfortable with, and asks for help with things he is not sure about.

Things he has not done before and are foreign to him (eg shopping, paying bills, banking) he won’t do online if he didn’t do in person before. He also has some autism which means he wants routine, can’t understand large numbers (will google common terms and get annoyed at millions of results), can’t spot a scam or pick up on social cues, thinks it is all true on the internet.

  • He gets upset when Apple do a system update and he has to reset his preferences. I can understand, Apple want you to work THEIR way, and hope you won’t reset privacy, location, file share settings.

  • The internet requires a mind-set. He just doesn’t get it. You need a bit of logical thinking to navigate menus, constant experience (so you recognise the Hamburger or back arrow), understanding that the digital world is “instant” eg White pages is up to the minute, the phone book is the one out of date.

  • He suffers from “Fat Finger” syndrome, particularly now Tablets are more sensitive - he sweeps his finger across the screen to show me something and it disappears, or he takes a stab at an icon and gets another.

  • MyGov is particularly problematic. He couldn’t use it, even with my help. Centrelink just directed him to a bank of computers. Consequently he has been eligible for a payment but hasn’t been able to finish the application for several years. It even stymied me.

  • For a long time we couldn’t use MyGov or any 2 factor authentication at home because we didn’t have a mobile phone signal.

  • I made the decision to avoid Facebook (except for our small town Notice Board), so we don’t have an account. This was to avoid confusing him with conspiracy sites his family & friends were directing him to, and I decided, we didn’t need the added drivel & noise.

The positives - he has found some like minded machinery people and constantly watches their videos, Mr Google has correctly sussed his play-list and he can’t believe all the good music lined up for him. He can find machinery parts that he wants from home (I vet the supplier & buy them) and he has it in a week.

The Bank set him up with an online account (which he doesn’t use) and I arranged a debit card, so he has no need to go online to do his banking. He can go to the post office to withdraw money. He can pay bills at the post office (If I am not around).

My mother, now in her 90’s, was an avid, if clunky computer user, now finds her failing sight makes it too hard to do. So much of this technology is orientated to sighted people.

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This: Apparently I’m elderly but its difficult to think of myself that way. However I have had to do tech support for friends still locked into the Windows world until I said “No more!!”. My Mac using friends became independent of my help very quickly. I might add, all these friends bar one, are younger than me. I think it depends on when you decided it was time to get into computers and how much of that was interest, or “must do because of work” etc.

I loved the techie side of things, a friend had bought a C64, and another an Amstrad… and I was hooked. Early 80s.

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Our experiences say there have been different outcomes for each individual in our immediate/near family.

A common observation is many of us have learnt by wrote. We know no other way to process information or to learn new things. This increases the challenge when asked to adopt new ways of doing something. It is made worse when the alternatives are withdrawn.

Lesson 1. For some it may be best to support how they are. The important are security, reassurance and trust.
Our mum’s only digital experience was the remote for the flat screen. Only the on/off, volume and number keys were used. 7 for 7, 9 for Win, 2 for ABC, plus a several others. Maintaining the number relationship was critical. The microwave sat on valuable bench space only used by visitors. The top load washing machine watched on as all was done by hand in the tub. Life at 90 revolved around routine and everything remaining constant. This included the security of a bullet proof passbook account. The wonderful lady entered aged care still totally self aware and mentally capable. Physically our bodies often let us down, vision, hearing, balance, strength … all combine to take away independent living.

The issues for someone stepping in as my partner and other family did are worth considering. In our local community and for the local Aged Care Facility (there is only one) there is no nearby access to CentreLink etc, and limited access to banks. Hence we are more digitally evolved. The challenge for my partner who had a POA was enabling banking in the digital world and authority for CentreLink/Aged Care Services, and others for her mum. There was no way this could be done other than in person with Mum in attendance. The digital world may have subsequently made our life easier. Getting into it is far from a virtual experience.

There is a lack of trust/experience, and other factors that hold the oldest in the community back. The repeated public concerns over insecurity of the digital world, and dramatisation of extreme examples of personal financial loss by the media were forefront in her mind. With some exceptions what many have in older age is all they have. When the one off bonus payments were announced as a 2022 election sweetener, the daily ask was had the money been paid into the account.

Lesson 2.
For those in our age group of Seniors there is no single stereotype. Some of us are all digital. Some still shuffle paper. Some are on ‘Hoogle’/Android, others Apple or Windows.

There are still key activities that need in person commitment. Possibly more given the uncertainty of who has access to which of our personal identifiers. It’s made all the more troublesome by our legal precedents which do not assure fair compensation when an entity accepts a fraudulent activity to our personal detriment.

I’ve recently made some high risk transactions. When contacted by the providers agent, we know how it goes. It does not without positive ID, which I’ll never offer in reply. Calling back in you never get the same person. A real pain when your mobile reception is marginal and calls can fail or drop. We need a better and more secure way of connecting remotely, and with assurance of who is at both ends.

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The inability of some elderly Aus to navigate the digital world is not always the fault of online businesses IMO.

Yes there’s a need for business to make it their priority to have clear, uncomplicated, easy to follow online services. Also, there’s a need to provide training in the digital world for those who haven’t been used to it from an early age (maybe more local library courses to better learn the technology).

But there are also other complications: such as resistance to new ways of doing things. I know a lady who still uses her Passbook for her banking, she’s notebook literate but does not trust online banking.
Another lady is not knowledgeable in the technology but could have lots of help from family in that sector and yet she chooses to call in the nearest bank branch to get cash out and then calls in the nearest post office to pay her bills by cash. She’s adamant that she’s keeping people in jobs and that it’s good for her to go out, have a good walk and meet people.

Other difficulties could be reduced mental dexterity and sight-impairment which make it harder for the elderly to navigate the Net.

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Parent who is frustrated at the increasing closure of physical bank branches. Still uses a cheque book, and her experience of ‘ordering’ is by mail from catalogues rather than via the Internet.

She does access the bank online, but it is changing its app which has given her something to worry about. I’ll presumably train her up on the new app, because I’m happy to push things until something happens while she is worried she’ll break something.

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Hi Andy can the scope of this be expanded please to include interaction with government?

Businesses will do as they please. If their offering doesn’t suit us we can choose to not have them and they’re under no obligation to provide anything other than what they perceive the target audience wants. Unfortunately seniors are usually a minority in that target audience - often due to lifestyle, low income and sheer lack of numbers - so what approach is Choice seeking to take with this issue?

Government and aged care is an entirely different matter as there’s a degree of accountability for delivery of services. Sometimes interacting with government is the only way isolated senior folks can harness the support they need to live with basic dignity in their own home, noting the desire to have people live in their own home for longer is a matter of declared public policy.

I’ve lost count the number of times that I’ve listened to either a recording or person, or read a letter, from myAgedCare helpfully suggest that my 90yo mother goes online to find something out. It’s tone deaf on their behalf in the extreme and an(other) instance of policy not matching reality. Offering assistance to seniors and then making communication with the mechanism by which it’s delivered difficult is IMHO cruel…maybe it’s a form of elder abuse. Ironically those who are most vulnerable and in need of tailored delivery don’t receive it. I’ve previously lodged a complaint with myAgedCare about their delivery fundamentally not being suited to a large portion of their target audience.

It’d be like universities telling school leavers they can only communicate using handwritten correspondence sent via snail mail. Or banks announcing that due to the vulnerabilities associated with cyber attacks they’re abolishing online banking. Hmmmm…that’d get lots of attention.

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Three likes from me!

Exactly the same types of issue our mum faced prior to and after moving to aged care. It’s no longer an issue for her. I wonder what it will be like for some of us in another decade or two. In the meantime we have the shared experiences of the extended family and their oldest members. It continues to remind us of how poorly the system is set up for those without close family willing and able to help fill the gap.

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It would be nice to still have government services located centrally, but the Commonwealth decided to do away with that to ‘save some money’. I am not entirely sure that there was a net saving - certainly people who rely on public transport are now expected to walk long distances to get to Centrelink or Medicare offices.

So - how many elderly people rely on those government services and are told to ‘use the app’?

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Sadly all of them as it’s the default position. There’s not even a suggestion or offer in any of the communication modes I mentioned that relates to receiving hard copy correspondence. I’m not sure if it’s wilful or unwilful ignorance but it’s definitely ignorance.

It makes me sad - and a range of other things - when I think about vulnerable seniors who receive correspondence telling them to ‘do things online’ or ‘log on’. I can only imagine their genuine despair at feeling even more isolated and vulnerable. myAgedCare clients range are in their 60s upwards and it’s not hard to out that the current crop of 70s and upwards are largely not digitally savvy or connected. That’s a lot of people and will change over time of course but not for a couple of decades.

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I spent about year before Covid as a tutor with a group, their mission statement “is to educate seniors on the use of computers and other technology (phones & tablets) as a way of enriching their lives and making them more self-reliant.”. The majority who attended were able to develop confidence and proficiency but a few people just found it incomprehensible. They were there because they wanted to learn, but even after weeks of classes were still in “monkey see, monkey do” mode. If everything followed the script, they were able to log on, do simple interactions, and maybe remember to log off. But one small change or misstep and they became confused and were unable to get back on track without help.

My mother-in-law was an extreme example. She changed channels on the TV with the channel up/down, the volume similarly, and turned it on and off. She occasionally hit the mute button or the AV button and was instantly lost and on the phone asking what to do. The washing machine was run on whatever program it had set. She was not senile, could talk intelligently about the latest book she read, the friends she met, how the garden was growing. Fortunately she was in a retirement village where people helped each other and one daughter lived nearby, and someone else helped with interactions with bureaucracy.

My thought is there are some people who cannot comprehend the digital world no matter what training they receive. The government, supposedly there to benefit all people, should take that on board and provide suitable services. They are prepared to provide services for people who don’t understand English, people in wheelchairs, the deaf and the blind. So providing a service to navigate their byzantine world seems a natural extension.

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Being “forced” into new technology can help. When the local paper went digital, subscribers were offered a cheap tablet, set up to read the paper on-line. The town had gone to the NBN so there was no problems with setting up an ISP.

Several of our tech-less friends took up the offer and now use the newspaper and, with a little help, found the wonders of the internet. Some of the reluctance was due to fear of the unknown and potential for being scammed. Most did not take up the full service, they still did banking & bill paying at the Post Office. When 2G was withdrawn, they took up smart phones and soon learnt to get 2FA. There is only one of these people I am concerned about; needing family to intervene as he can’t spot a scam, but restricting what he does, or can access, does mitigate the damage.

I know people in their 50’s who don’t have a smart phone, people of an artistic bent who just don’t seem to “get it” (the whole How Technology Works thing), those with some autism who can’t comprehend that they are not talking to the guy next door, but possibly millions in China, USA etc when they post something, and those who think the internet is Govt and therefore trustworthy. Not just Old People.

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Learning new tech is like learning a new language. Some people are good at it; some aren’t; and generally the older you get the harder it becomes.

I think that the problem is that too many providers of IT & C do not invest any time consulting key stakeholders. If they do consult it is often with a cohort who is at hand, or even sufficiently mobile to get to the designated spot, or tech savvy enough to get online and respond. Often these exclude seniors.

An example of this is our Council. They put out online survey/questionnaires and ask people to respond. Very few seniors that I know of have ever responded online. Unfortunately, the Council then generalises from the responses to the whole community to say such as “64% of the community said …” This totally disenfranchises a large swathe of the community who are not tech savvy, or do not have access to the tech.

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You have very succinctly described my own situation. A mid 70s woman, not fascinated by technology, having been forced into using it, I am now daily stressed by constant changes in layouts, vocabulary and instructions. As for trying to determine suitable security providers and levels of security needed it is a foreign language.

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Welcome to the community @Wenno.
Your comment is very relatable.
There are several in our family circle of similar outlook. In response to your issue they rely heavily on the default settings for the security of their chosen device/s and Apps. How effective or risky is open to a longer discussion.

It’s immensely frustrating that when updates do occur the Apps or device changes how it appears. The more technically focused adapt to the changes or vigorously reconfigure the device to their preferences. Android based devices are the most commonly used - (by my observation) due to the appeal of the low cost. Support varies by brand and by model.

I’ve observed users of all ages avoiding updates because of unwanted change, and inconvenience. Apple products may offer a more secure default product, but at a very premium price. They too rely on regular updates, and can change how the device presents itself.

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It is hard enough for seniors and the elderly to navigate the digital world, think of those with vision impairment. My partner is a vision-impaired senior. He is able to navigate the email system and online information resource systems, but being unable to read the screen (computer and phone) he has to rely on text-to-speech software, which is not always effective, and I am constantly worried he might fall prey to online scams when responding to email. Governments make it hard for this group of citizens by moving everything online while reducing office staff at public offices.

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I have a friend, late 70s, who (as far as I know) doesn’t use a computer at all and doesn’t have an email address. He was given a mobile phone recently but only uses it for phone calls.

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