The government aims for universal internet access either through the home or in the community, which could enable online delivery of all information about government and welfare services by 2005.
Traditionally, people living in sheltered housing are heavy users of welfare provision such as social housing, health services and care support. In the autumn of 2002, a research project was conducted with 18 older tenants and six members of staff in two sheltered housing schemes in London.1
The report provides a tiny snapshot of reactions to the government’s policy and raises issues that need to be addressed if the policy is to become reality. On being asked their attitude towards this policy, three tenants replied:
- “The letters are so small – I need my reading glasses to read the screen.”
- “What do you call it? The mouse, you know, it kept going here there and everywhere.”
- “I’d love to be able to use the internetÉ I’d use it as entertainment, I could tap into information, companionship.”
The report shows that older people are becoming more aware of places they can access the internet. Some tenants had been to free introductory courses or had had their interest whetted through their relatives’ use of the internet.
Only one tenant reported a competent use of the internet, and could see the potential for using it to access information-based services. Recently retired tenants, who were able to live independently, often had keyboard skills but had little experience of the internet.
Frail older people needed assistance and often had no keyboard skills to draw upon. Most tenants saw the advantages of internet access being recreational and enriching the range of entertainment possibilities, including communicating with friends and learning more about current affairs and society.
On the point of the government’s policy of providing online services and information, there was considerable scepticism. Some older people much preferred to go out and have face-to-face contact with people who could meet their needs. There was concern that social isolation could increase as a result of such a policy.
By contrast, others saw the advantages of certain aspects of the internet, such as online shopping and prescription services, especially if people lived in remote areas. This was seen as a distinct advantage to help people maintain independence.
The report highlighted barriers to access. High on the list was the issue of how accessible computer technology would be for people whose eyesight was failing, or for whom conditions such as arthritis would seriously impair keyboard use.
The training needs and technical support for older people could be complex. There are additional issues for people for whom English is not their first language. Cost was also an important consideration: to what extent would such provision deepen the problems of debt among older people?
The care professionals interviewed in the report gave several telling responses. There was a strong feeling among them that online shopping and ordering of repeat prescriptions would be an asset, and could lead to economies in staff time.
They also felt, however, that their main priorities were the enhancement of the quality of life for frail older people, and that online access cannot substitute for human contact in care provision.
1 M Sourbati, Internet Use in Sheltered Housing: Older People’s Access to New Media and On-line Service Delivery, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2004, £11.95.
Bernard Moss is a principal lecturer in social work and applied social studies and a learning and teaching fellow at Staffordshire University.