TThe last thing I want to do is lecture my “elders and superiors” (as my grandmother called the older generation) about their behavior. We old people already know how to stay happy and healthy. We’ve had our shots, we exercise, we’ve quit smoking, and we eat our vegetables. So we don’t need some crazy young man, or worse yet, an elderly TV host, to tell us what to do. But I’ve learned an important lesson in the two years since Covid hit, and I thought maybe others could benefit too. It’s about the Internet.
My generation is very suspicious of the Internet, an opinion that I understand and, to a certain extent, share. Every day there are new warnings about the dangers of cyberspace: scams and scammers targeting the elderly. Callers to the Silver Line helpline, which I founded a decade ago as a resource for seniors, often say that trying to navigate this jungle with a mouse, keyboard and bewildering screen is a challenge that has defeated. In a 2019 Office for National Statistics survey, less than half of those over 75 said that they had recently used the Internet.
That wouldn’t be much of a problem, except that a lot of things are now migrating online, and the triumphal march of technology is leaving many older people very isolated. Take shopping. My grandmother liked to walk down the main street, exchanging gossip with the merchants who greeted her by her name, asked about her family and recognized and valued her. Now my main street is a tangle of charity shops and a few remaining chain stores 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 The human face has been replaced by a click on a screen.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 is not easy to admit it, because loneliness carries a stigma. The word we hear most often from callers to the Silver Line helpline is the “b” word: “load.” One she wrote to me anonymously that since she lost her husband of 54 years, she sometimes goes “three days straight without talking to anyone. I’m an optimist by nature and sometimes I need that to get through another mindless day when I feel like I’m a waste of space.” No wonder loneliness causes serious damage to mental and physical health.
I don’t think there is a magic bullet to combat loneliness. But having seen how technology was isolating older people, I learned to my surprise during lockdown that it might also offer a solution. When we couldn’t meet face to face, he brought my family and friends to my house. We couldn’t travel or hug each other, but every day we could laugh, chat and send each other photos. The 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 host parties. It’s convenient, easy and I still do it. Even though I live deep in a forest, I still feel connected to the outside world, and the skills I learned during lockdown continue to prove their worth to me every day.
The key is to start. The University of the Third Age, U3A, conducted tutorials during the lockdown to encourage members to use the Internet, improve their skills and have fun. At one session, 80 ukulele-playing members of U3A joined in a virtual jam session. When Covid first took me out of London into the wild beauty of the New Forest, I only had a very fragile three kilometer copper cable connecting my laptop to the outside world, so Zoom and Teams conferencing and streaming of video were impossible. I realized how crucial high-quality broadband is. Even when, after six months, this came to our village, I still had to learn to use Zoom and Skype, but once you make up memorable passwords (and learn to reinvent them when, as inevitably, they become unmemorable) become your best friends. The good news I discovered from the last 18 months of Zooming is that you only have to look respectable up to your waist, so you can spend the day in comfortable slippers. And online shopping turns into Christmas every day as packages arrive that you don’t remember ordering, but turn out to be exactly what you wanted, at least some of the time. And if from time to time you forget to unmute yourself, doesn’t everyone do it?
It’s up to us old folks to take the first step. If any of us feel left out or confused by technology, we should swallow our pride and ask for help. We need to encourage our friends, families, charities and volunteers to guide us and guide us into the brave new world. I suspect it will be much easier than we fear: if we can type, we can use a computer.
And it’s worth a literature review on the impact of the Internet on the elderly found much evidence of the “positive effect of computer use on the psychological functioning and well-being of older adults”, and that Internet use “has also been associated with a decrease in loneliness and depression, better socialization”. connectivity, self-esteem and cognitive functioning, improvement of self-efficacy, self-control, self-determination, social interaction, education and skills development”.
Yes, there are new dangers, but every adventure has its risks. I would remind any reluctant fellow that the invention of the automobile meant learning to drive, memorizing the highway code, and fastening our seat belts to keep us safe. The same applies to surfing the Internet: it’s a challenge at first, but it’s worth it.
Like the car, the Internet allows us to explore the world, connect with our friends and loved ones, celebrate together. And if the computer beats us at first, it’s a great excuse to call our grandkids for help.
Esther Rantzen is a journalist and broadcaster who founded the child protection charity. ChildLine and the free and confidential Silver Line helpline for the elderly (0800 4 70 80 90)