2020 has been a year of digital connectedness. Many of us relied on the internet to keep working and stay connected to family and friends. Access to virtual health services turned out to be important too. But access to the internet and digital connection wasn’t available to everyone. It’s assumed that older people are unable or unwilling to use digital communications. The assumptions by others about the capabilities of older people doesn’t help. It reinforces a negative mindset in both older people and their younger family members.
Understanding older people’s relationship with the internet was the subject of a survey in rural Queensland. 1500 households were surveyed and asked about the general adoption of internet use. Within this survey, respondents were asked to indicate their understanding of older people’s relationship with the internet. Researchers found three general assumptions: older people aren’t interested in the internet, and they generally can’t use it. However, family members did believe the internet would be useful for older people.
If family members act on these assumptions they are unlikely to assist older members of the family to use the internet to communicate with others. If society continues to assume older people incapable or disinterested in internet communications it will lead to reinforcing the digital divide.
The researchers conclude that distinctions should be drawn between older people in rural areas and the tendency to apply urban norms to this population.
The title of the article is, Perceptions of older age and digital participation in rural Queensland. It is academically dense in parts but the issue is clear. Older people will be unable to join with younger cohorts in independently using internet technology if we continue to apply these assumptions.
Participation is thought to build and sustain individual and community resilience. What constitutes participation today significantly involves networked digital communications. With Australia’s ageing population set to increase exponentially, and with a growing concentration of older people living outside of larger cities and towns, a need exists to address how participation in later life is understood and facilitated. Coupled with the need for regional communities to find relevant change processes that build resilience, this multidisciplinary paper highlights variations in perception about older people’s digital abilities in regional Queensland. Following the general increase in appeal of digital devices to older people, defined here as those aged over 65, the paper suggests that how older people’s digital connectedness progresses is foundationally influenced by the speculative, antithetical and potentially ambivalent perceptions of others. In doing so, we seek to understand rural connectedness in later life through a suite of literacies informing digital participation.
There’s a related article from 2015, Internet use: Perceptions and experiences of visually impaired older adults. Published in the Journal of Social Inclusion, it provides some excellent qualitative research – the comments from older people with vision loss are especially revealing.