COVID-19: Protecting the vulnerable
Supporting social connection and physical distancing: The importance of digital citizenship for older people
Professor Loretta Baldassar
Older people are at greater risk of the complications associated with the COVID-19 and, as a result, they are being urged to strictly adhere to social distancing regulations. However, this brings with it a number of challenges that impact older people’s wellbeing, in particular their need to stay socially connected while remaining physically safe.
Since older adults in residential aged care facilities are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, the Federal Government has encouraged aged care providers to limit or suspend existing visiting programs and enforce ‘lock-down’ measures to ensure patients, residents, staff and visitors remain safe and well. Although necessary to control the spread of the pandemic and protect the most vulnerable, this can create additional anxiety for residents, families and staff.
Ageing, social isolation and loneliness
Older people are already at risk of isolation and loneliness, especially those who do not have family members who can support them, those with limited English language ability and those who experience cultural barriers. As people age, their support networks often shrink as they become less mobile and active in community life, and as their families move away for work.
A lack of social support, isolation and loneliness not only affect mental health, with a higher risk of depression and anxiety, but have also been identified as risk factors for coronary heart disease, stroke and autoimmune and neurocognitive problems). Service providers often struggle to meet the social support needs of older adults, in particular in residential care [PDF, 3.5MB] and in rural and remote areas.
Residents in care facilities and long-term hospital stays tend to be lonelier than community-dwelling older people, even though they are often surrounded by other residents and carers). This is likely to be exacerbated during the pandemic, exacting a critical emotional toll on residents, their families and staff.
Digital literacy and older people
An important way to combat isolation and loneliness, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, is through virtual connection. Research shows that increased digital literacy and technology use predicts lower levels of loneliness, and better mental and physical health. Other positive effects of online engagement include opportunities for gaining new friends, self-expression or learning, including accessing content important for cultural and social identity and sense of belonging and community.
However, there are barriers to effective use of technologies for older adults. The Australian Human Rights Commission has identified that older people’s lack of confidence to engage with the internet at a high level limits their ‘full inclusion’ in accessing mainstream information, making independent decisions about their lives, maintaining social connections for wellbeing, and making informed decisions about health and their environment.
The social and economic consequences of the relative disadvantage experienced by older Australians in using the internet led former Age Discrimination Commissioner Susan Ryan to characterise this disadvantage as a form of age discrimination.
While internet use by Australians over the age of 65 has grown rapidly [PDF, 4.6MB] over the past two decades, from just 6 per cent in 2001 to 79 per cent in 2015, a number of critical issues continue to impact their digital citizenship. Older Australians are less digitally connected than other age cohorts and even those with an internet connection may not be sufficiently competent to be able to access information or do internet transactions.
Approximately 34 per cent of Australians over 50 years of age (2.7 million people) either have low digital literacy levels or do not use digital devices or the internet. Of those aged over 70 years, 57 per cent have low to no digital literacy and 74 per cent are digitally disengaged [PDF, 3.6MB].