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Silver surfers

Anja KueppersJuly 3, 2014

Research by a UK think tank called The Policy Exchange shows that about four in 10 people in the UK aged 65 and over don’t have access to the Internet at home, even though they could benefit from it.

Rosemary Sargentson on a computer. (Photo: Anja Kueppers, London)
Image: Anja Kueppers

The senior citizens are losing out, it's reported, on a means of social interaction at a time of life when contact with others is particularly important.

Policy Exchange says a significant percentage of older people are very lonely and that the World Wide Web could alleviate some of that loneliness. All it would take would be a cool one billion Euro to bring dramatic social and economic benefits. So can the elderly learn to love tech? And do they even want to?

Rosemary Sargentson could be the "silver surfer" poster child Policy Exchange has in mind when it suggests that a significant investment should be made to help pensioners learn how to get online. She's a little older than your average child though. A frail, but elegant lady, she doesn't have time to give her exact age because she's busy learning new skills - getting to, then using, and then possibly even enjoying the Internet.

"It's a bit late in the day to start learning," says Ms. Sargentson, "but it suddenly struck me I ought to make an effort."

She's already got a six-week IT course under her belt. Now she's trying to pick up what she can at a weekly, free drop-in session organized by a charity called Age UK.

Ernie Pilgrim on a computer. (Photo: Anja Kueppers, London)
Seniors like Ernie Pilgrim learn how to use the Internet at Age UKImage: Anja Kueppers

"Well, I was trying to learn about train times, but I'm not getting there very fast," she says. "I keep making a mistake and having to go back to the beginning again."

800,000 'chronically lonely'

Sargenston would do well to keep practicing if it's true - as the think tank, Policy Exchange, believes - that getting online can improve the well-being and social lives of older people.

It has just published a report showing 800,000 elderly people in the UK receive only one visit a month or less from family, and suggests that the Internet and simple online access could be the key to easing the resulting sense of isolation.

"There's a real problem there, which simple stuff like being able to use Skype or being able to use social media and find out more of what's happening in their local communities could be of real benefit for that particular generation," says Eddie Copeland, who heads the Technology Policy Unit at Policy Exchange, referring to the over 65s.

Many who'd like to get onto the internet regularly have already done so once or twice, says Margaret Prain, an IT tutor at Age UK, but sometimes not consistently enough for their newly-gained knowledge to sink in.

"I'll get them to send an email, and then it's the person on the other side who will get the shock of their lives when they receive it, and reply back, ‘How on earth did you do this?'" says Prain. "It's that sort of thing which really actually helps them."

Investing in the elderly: for the future?

Spending money on educating the elderly may not be a key political talking point for elected officials, but Policy Exchange reckons spending one billion Euro would be smart money. There could potentially be big returns on the investment of teaching more than six million pensioners.

Better emotional health often leads to better physical health and with IT skills, many more older Britons could start managing their healthcare needs online - a definite cost-saver for healthcare providers like the UK's National Health Service.

Eddie Copeland from Policy Exchange. (Photo: Anja Kueppers, London)
Copeland says using the Internet could help pensioners get out moreImage: Anja Kueppers

Professor Thomas Kirkwood, Associate Dean of Ageing at Newcastle University, says any investment would be worthwhile but that encouragement is needed.

"For older people who have learned a huge range of life skills which they retain but which are not based around the Internet, there is a need for some training," he says. "But fundamentally it's a problem more of attitude than of investment and capability."

Internet can't replace real human contact

But Kirkwood says that offering an elderly family member a laptop or an iPad should never be seen as the ultimate solution to combating loneliness.

"Connectedness through the Internet is fine, but it is not adequate on its own and we should not be looking for a kind of technological quick-fix."

It's so true, says Alexandra Moore, who's also learning as much as she can at the AGE UK IT support center.

"It is up to families to remember they are families. In fact, I sent a postcard to both my daughters today just to make sure the handwriting's still there," Moore adds.

"Being involved with others is important but if we only do it on a computer, then we're isolating ourselves."