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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society—discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
The older adult population is growing more than any other segment of the overall population: from 2020 to 2030, the number of older adults will increase by 18 million in the United States alone. Digital usage among the elderly is steadily increasing, but bridging the digital divide isn’t just about having technology. It's also about whether people have internet access—as well as what kind of access and how affordable it is—and whether they have the necessary skills to use technology effectively.
While the adoption of technology has grown over the past decade and the gap between the old and the young has narrowed, there is still room for improvement. One Pew Research survey found that among those 65 and older 75% are internet users, but only 44% own tablets and only 64% have access to broadband. The research isn’t clear if older adults choose not to own tablets or simply can’t afford those high-ticket items.
In the meantime, for older adults who aren’t tech-savvy, there is much work to be done to bridge the digital divide. Often those unfamiliar with technology lack confidence because they didn’t grow up adapting to new technologies. In addition, they may face physical challenges such as visual impairments, hearing loss or arthritis that make using technology difficult or impossible. Yet many of these aging impairments can be mitigated with technology itself. Voice assistant devices can help those with dexterity issues or vision impairments. And a growing number of devices are coming out regularly to help people age healthier.
Economic stability through job skills
Older adults may find themselves in a difficult situation with respect to the labour market as many may need to continue working. Inadequate levels of social assistance programmes, inflation and longer lifespans in some countries are leading them to stay in the workforce longer. This trend is expected to continue.
Remote work can be a great option for older adults who don’t want or aren’t able to commute. However, those that lack digital access and skills are notoriously behind their peers. First, older adults need to understand the importance of an investment in technology and internet access. These tools can help them with employment, staying connected, health, and aging well. Next, to be a viable candidate for remote jobs, it’s essential that older adults gain confidence in the digital tech skills they need to thrive. GetSetUp created a number of technology classes starting at the most basic levels that address the needs of older adults. These live interactive classes with peers allow older adults to learn, ask their questions and empower them to build their confidence with series specific to work foundation skills to more advanced classes, like how to create your own business. The United States government and non-profits are already sponsoring these classes to help older adults get the customised training they need to access the modern labour market.
More on the Forum Network: The "new normal" is for all ages, by Luis Pinto, Director for Programmes and Learning, Learning for Well-being foundation
Twenty years from now, we do not have to look at the pandemic as the revealing indicator of our ageist societies. Instead, we can think: this was a catalyst in a social revolution towards partnership between generations. Isn’t this a post-pandemic world worth creating?
Solving social isolation through virtual social connectedness
Older adults have to be more proactive in finding community. Families are often more spread out and less likely to live together intergenerationally than in previous decades. If older adults don't seek out communities, they may face the serious risks of loneliness. Prolonged loneliness may increase the risk of death (by 26%), increase the risk of developing coronary heart disease or having a stroke, and increase the risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
Older adults can actively engage with grandkids and lifelong friends even at a distance. Video chat and audio call software allow people to connect with family and friends around the world. Plus, safe virtual communities for people of varied interests are springing up for people to take classes together, attend exercise programmes or share their interests in live sessions. It’s important that older people learn how to stay safe in online communities, so starting with communities like GetSetUp that are moderated and geared specifically to older adults can be a good starting point.
Improving neuroplasticity through virtual learning opportunities
The brain can “rewire” itself and continue to develop when one learns new skills. One study suggests that lifelong learning could delay the onset of cognitive impairment and be used as a preventive intervention to reduce impending dementia. Opportunities to learn and grow online are abundant, and a great way to help maintain the health and well-being of older adults.
There are a large variety of ways to learn, from watching documentaries on a streaming service or checking out informative pieces on video hosting platforms to asynchronous classes online. Or older adults can attend live interactive classes on aging topics on GetSetUp or through local universities, many of whom are still offering their classes online.
Medical care is moving digital
From vaccine enrollment (with online-only sign-ups in the United States) to telemedicine appointments and digital therapy sessions, medical care is moving online. Now patients can access their doctors and nurses via video chat or audio call. They can stay better informed about their health and learn how to best manage their symptoms without leaving their homes.
Considering the healthcare worker shortage, digital technology can help healthcare workers assess which patients need to be seen immediately and those who can be given tips without an in-person visit. This can help to cut down on costs for everyone involved, from healthcare plans and healthcare institutions to patients who are traveling for medical visits.
Taking a more holistic approach to aging
Access to digital tools and technology can not only help older adults with health and aging but also help with financial stability. Globally, many older adults need to subsidise their pensions or retirement funding with part-time jobs, informal employment or entrepreneurship. An older adult can't be truly healthy unless they achieve a combination of financial, social, mental and physical health—learning tech will help dramatically with this overall holistic approach. To facilitate this, governments and organisations need to get devices and internet access to people and, most importantly, offer empowering learning opportunities. Providing the ability to effectively use digital tools can change the lives of older adults for the better.