The last thing I’d ever want to do is lecture my “elders and betters” (as my grandmother called the older generation) about their behaviour. We oldies already know how to stay happy and healthy. We’ve had our jabs, we take our exercise, we’ve given up smoking and we eat our greens. So we don’t need any young whippersnapper – or worse, elderly TV presenter – to tell us what to do. But I have learned an important lesson in the two years since Covid hit, and I thought maybe others could benefit from it too. It’s about the internet.
My generation is very wary of the internet – a view I understand and, to an extent, share. Every day there are new warnings about the dangers of cyberspace: the scams and the swindlers targeting older people. Callers to the Silver Line helpline, which I founded a decade ago as a resource for older people, often say that trying to navigate this jungle with a mouse, a keyboard and a mystifying screen is a challenge that has defeated them. In a 2019 Office for National Statistics survey, less than half of over-75s said that they had recently used the internet.
That wouldn’t be such a problem, except that so many things are now migrating online – and technology’s triumphant march is leaving an awful lot of older people very isolated. Take shopping. My grandmother enjoyed pottering around the high street, exchanging gossip with shopkeepers who would greet her by name, ask after her family de ella, and recognize and value her. Now, my high street is a tangle of charity shops and a few remaining chainstores and supermarkets. The human face has been replaced by a click on a screen.
Even before the pandemic, Age UK found that in England, 1.4 million older people often felt lonely. It’s not easy to admit, because loneliness carries a stigma. The word we hear most often from callers to the Silver Line helpline is the “b” word – “burden”. One wrote anonymously to me that since she lost her husband of 54 years, she sometimes goes “for three days at a time without talking to anyone. I am an optimist by nature and sometimes I need that to get through another pointless day when I feel as if I am a waste of space.” No wonder loneliness causes serious damage to mental and physical health.
I do not believe that there is a magic bullet to combat loneliness. But having seen how technology was cutting off older people, I learned to my surprise during lockdown that it could also offer a solution. When we were unable to meet face to face, it brought my family and friends into my home. We couldn’t travel, or hug, but still every day we could laugh, chat and send each other pictures. Work continued – I attended weekly meetings via FaceTime and Skype. If only Boris Johnson had realized, as I did, that he could use Zoom to hold parties. It’s convenient, easy, and I still do it. Even though I live deep in a forest, I still feel connected with the outside world, and the skills I learned during lockdown continue to provide their value to me day by day.
The key is getting started. The University of the Third Age, U3A, conducted tutorials during lockdown to encourage members to use the internet, to upskill them and to have fun. In one session, 80 ukulele-playing U3A members joined in a virtual jam session. When Covid first drove me out of London into the wild beauty of the New Forest, I had only a very fragile three kilometers of copper wire linking my laptop with the outside world, so Zoom and Teams conferences and streaming video were impossible. I became only too aware how crucial high-quality broadband is. Even when, after six months, this did reach our village, I still had to learn how to actually use Zoom and Skype, but once you invent memorable passwords (and learn how to reinvent them when, as inevitably happens, they become unmemorable) they become your best friends. The good news I have discovered since the last 18 months of Zooming is that you only have to look respectable down to the waist, so you can spend the day in comfy slippers. And shopping online turns every day into Christmas as parcels arrive you have no memory of ordering but turn out to be exactly what you wanted, at least some of the time. And if you occasionally forget to unmute yourself, doesn’t everyone?
It’s up to us oldies to take the first step. If any of us feel excluded or confused by technology, we must swallow our pride and ask for help. We need to encourage our friends, families, charities and volunteers to guide and mentor us into the brave new world. I suspect it will be far easier than we fear: if we can type, we can use a computer.
And it’s worth it. TO review of the literature on the impact of the internet on older people found lots of evidence for “the positive effect of computer use on the psychological functioning and wellbeing of the older adults”, and that internet use “has also been associated with decreased loneliness and depression, better social connectedness, self-esteem and cognitive functioning, improved self-efficacy, self-control, self-determination, social interaction, education and skills development”.
Yes, there are new dangers, but any adventure has its risks. I would remind any reluctant fellow oldies that the invention of the car meant learning to drive, memorizing the Highway Code, and fastening our seatbelts in order to stay safe. The same applies to navigating the internet: it’s a challenge at first, but it’s worth it.
Like the car, the internet enables us to explore the world, to join our friends and loved ones, to celebrate together. And if at first the computer defeats us, it’s a wonderful excuse to ring up our grandchildren and ask them for help.
Esther Rantzen is a journalist and broadcaster who founded the child protection charity ChildLine and the free, confidential Silver Line helpline for older people (0800 4 70 80 90)
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism