Online services make things easier…unless you don’t have a smartphone
Elderly people in the German town of Taunusstein were initially hesitant when the council presented them with a new bus service that users book online.
At first glance, everything about the service, named Emil, seemed promising: a bus with flexible ride times that users could book through the app or online.
That was part of the problem, though. Anyone without a smartphone or computer could be left behind, which means many older people in particular, says Dietmar Enders, who chairs a regional council for older people.
Thanks to the group’s lobbying, users can now also book the bus by telephone.
Older people had problems accessing digital services even before the pandemic, but the arrival of Covid-19 has dramatically accelerated the problem – and made it more visible, says Enders, 78.
He and Norbert Weimar, 70, chair a group called Accessibility and they describe how isolated it was for some who couldn’t attend a local seniors’ club during lockdown, or go to choir practice in online, because they didn’t have access to videoconferencing tools.
In 2020, some 88% of the German population was online, according to the Digital Index study, and 80% had mobile internet access.
However, a closer look at the figures shows that only half of people over 70 used the internet and only a third went online using a smartphone.
While Enders and Weimar are happy that many administrative services can be completed online, they asked the council to keep the needs of older people in mind and ensure that people without internet access can also use the services.
The Seniors Advisory Council also deals with helping users enter the digital world, offering a service where seniors coach their peers and help them use the web.
Six months later, the service has been very successful, Digital Minister Kristina Sinemus told dpa, adding that the network is expected to expand statewide this year and next.
Alongside the volunteer system, there are also computer courses and “mobile phone consultation hours” where people can come in case of problems.
Relying on family members to help is often not enough, Enders and Weimar say. Additionally, people sometimes need emotional or psychological support to cope with the digital world.
Some lack motivation but as Enders notes, the pandemic has forced many of them to try using tablets and smartphones, ready or not.
Stephanie Emde from the Kassel Volunteer Center also reports “a lot of insecurity and fear” among older people who are reluctant to embarrass themselves in front of their children and grandchildren with what they fear are stupid questions. Often a computer class is best, she says.
The pandemic has increased discrimination in everyday life against people who are not online, she says.
According to Emde, a person seeking help was on the verge of tears, unable to go swimming as usual because the ticketing system was online but she had no smartphone or computer.
Even at the doctor’s, many people now feel marginalized when appointments and prescriptions are mostly available online, says Emde.
Meanwhile, in many places around the world, Covid-19 vaccination appointments must be booked online, which is particularly demanding for retirees who were also among those most at risk of infection.
Often, even when telephone services are available, these are insufficient, forcing users to wait hours for answers or dial late at night to reach someone for help.
Banks are also closing branches and reducing the times when face-to-face services are available, with many encouraging customers to use digital services instead, a change that is often very frustrating for older people in particular.
Some elders draw the line. Earlier this year, a Spanish pensioner launched an online anti-banking crusade, persuading the government to sit up and take notice.
Carlos San Juan, a retired doctor, called on all Spanish banks to provide staffing services to older people in particular, rather than steering them towards digital services.
Some 600,000 people signed the petition, titled “I’m Old, But I’m Not Idiot,” in one day. San Juan, 78, then introduced him to the Ministry of Economy and the Central Bank of Madrid.
In response, the Spanish government promised to pressure banks to make staff available to older people, saying the industry recognized the problem and was committed to addressing it.
And Banco Santander, Spain’s largest lender by global total assets, said it would extend its counter opening hours for all customers by three hours.
Meanwhile, the problem is not limited to the elderly. Surveys show that around a third of Spaniards feel limited in their ability to access services, jobs or state aid due to the digital divide. – dpa