This report was completed early in 2013 for the Nominet Trust, following the open exploration described here.
This paper explores how we can use and develop digital technologies to prepare for and enjoy later life. It brings together past research, and the results of a wide-ranging process to gather experience and ideas from those in the field, undertaken through a workshop and online discussion. We hope the paper and background resources will be useful to anyone seeking to develop projects, and also help those working in the field to see what others are doing. One of the key finding from our exploration was that thinkers, those in support services, and the technically adept were not well connected. We hope this paper will help create some shared understanding.
We have used the term digital technology later in life rather than simply older people using digital technology because a strong messages is that older isnt a very useful perspective on its own. The ways that people from 55 to 90-plus may use technology is very diverse - and has far more to do with their personal interests and circumstances than their age.
However, in some ways the lessons in designing and using digital technology are similar to those earlier in life. For example, in comparing our findings with those from the Digital Edge exploration into young people using technology we identified the importance of starting where people are at; co-designing with users; and encouraging peer-to-peer support.
Differences in the use of technology in later life do, of course, arise because as we get older we may be less able mentally or physically; we may have different experiences that inform how we address new learning opportunities, and may not have used technology in education or work in ways that are becoming the norm for younger people.
We may be unwilling to share personal information and activities with strangers on social networks, be anxious about the security of our data - or simply wary of handling computers and digital devices. There are real barriers and challenges - of which perhaps the greatest is whats the point? And one benefit of age is the wisdom to resist its good for you.
So if we do believe that there are benefits in helping people use digital technology later in life, we have to recognise that as we get older we may be different in far more ways than we are the same. We have different life histories, families, friends and interests that we have developed along the way and thats where the opportunities arise, if we are prepared to realise them.
Julia Unwin CBE, Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, writing about Why we must celebrate - not ignore ageing said:
While Julia Unwins analysis is not specifically about the role that technology can play, it sets the tone for the approach that we are advocating here - using later life as a lens through which to review what sort of life any of us would wish for - and the ways in which technology can help.
While acknowledging the continuing challenge of digital inclusion - providing online access and support - we are not primarily concerned here with how to achieve government aims to achieve digital by default in the use of public services. We do however look at some of the issues this raises for individuals, and hope that insights from the exploration will open additional ways to engage people with digital technology.
Nor have we sought to cover the substantial field of telecare, and the means by which technologies can help those of us who are becoming frail remain longer in our homes.
The issues of how care services can better use digital technology is the subject of a paper by Shirley Ayres, published by Nominet Trust: Can online innovations enhance social care?
The main focus here is on how individuals might best use digital technology later in life; how friends, relatives and others can help; the importance of learning together and how the social uses of technology are particularly valuable.
The forum on Gransnet, set up and summarised by Geraldine Bedell for our exploration, brought alive the day to day experience of older people using technology: the good, the bad, the frustrating and the exhilarating. These experiences and the issues they raise have been reviewed in light of wider consultation and future research and are distilled here into 10 provocations that can act as talking points and possibly as a focus for project development and investment. The reference material for each of these is provided for further information and deeper exploration.
But provoking new ideas isnt sufficient if we are to develop better ways to support the use of digital technology in later life. There is so much excellent work to build on that in addition to these provocations we have developed some themes that are important to consider in responding to these challenges. Its only a start though. Indeed there are many other themes that could be developed because we found the exploration to be more about technology and life, than technology for older people.
These 10 provocations are developed more fully below, and on other pages with background research. They are the basis for the themes that follow.
These themes aim to draw out some common issues across our 10 provocations. Overall theme. Digital technology will be significant for everyone later in life - and a lot of older people may be excluded from the benefits.
Most peoples lives are already heavily dependent on technology through the appliances we use, the ways we communicate and engage with banks, shops and public services. That is likely to increase, and the challenge in later life is to make the best use of technology that we can as our circumstances, interests and abilities change.
Digital technology can certainly bring particular benefits later in life. It can help combat loneliness and social isolation, and provide new opportunities for people to connect, learn, develop new activities, and find a new role in life.
In addition, having access to online systems, either personally or through someone who will act as a helper or proxy user, will be essential as public services become digital by default. Because of these potential benefits, and policy imperatives, a great deal has been done to encourage and support use of technology under digital inclusion programmes. However, achieving the benefits, and widespread take-up, has not been easy.
All of our provocations aim to address these issues - with the first being particularly important: Look at personal needs and interests as well as common motivations - one digital size wont fit all. Here are the main themes and insights that emerged from our exploration.
Developing personal and community use of digital technology can help us feel valued and valuable Changes in family or employment circumstances, perhaps coupled with reducing physical or mental capabilities, may diminish ones sense of personal value and identity later in life.
There may be more time to pursue personal interests, but for some people being able to contribute something to others can also be important.
Digital technology can support new social and well as personal interests in this regard.
Community and voluntary organisations depend heavily on older people as volunteers, and older people may be willing to participate in innovative approaches to local community building using digital technology, if this is combined with some support. Focussing on how digital technology can enable older people to contribute to their community offers benefits for them, and for their communities.
The first five of our provocations provide ideas that are particularly relevant and expand the ideas in this theme - together with number 8. Start with friends and family. Reference for this theme
Changing circumstances and transitions in later life may be times when digital technology is most valuable Change and transitions between different life events provides many challenging times, whether as a result of retirement, health, bereavement, re-locating to live with children or moving into a care home. These cross-over geographic and age boundaries, but provide moments where support is most needed to address challenges. Its interesting to note that these moments of transition are also felt by young people - perhaps when homeless, seeking job, becoming a parent. Indeed it may be a key challenge across age groups, though perhaps dealt with differently based upon age, experience and situation.
A Nominet Trust research report On the Periphery? into young people who are at points of transition, and not able to connect with and use the online world, provides an in-depth analysis of the issues and peoples preferences and a range of suggestions for support.
During our exploration Gransnet, the online network for grandparents, ran a discussion on peoples greatest concerns about getting old, and how technology can help. Gransnet editor Geraldine Bedell summarised the concerns as Ageism, Poverty/hardship, Loneliness, Health and Care, Uncertainty about roles - with technology being both a concern and offering benefits.
The spontaneous contributions to the forum gave a lively picture of peoples day-to-day use of technology, and how this changed as they became older and how it could change their lives for the better.
Provocations 1,3,4,6,7 offer some ideas for how to make the best use of digital technology during transitions in life.
New and less confident users of digital technology need continuing support An innovative new device, or a one-off course, may not be enough for someone to maintain their use of digital technology - whatever their age. Both research, and discussions with those working in field, confirms the experience we may have when enthusiastically showing, for example, a new website or a smartphone to a new user.
The first click-through - or touch through - may be engaging but then it can be difficult to remember the sequence of actions needed, or how to get from one application to another. Even well-structured courses can leave people frustrated if they find that the computer at home does work in the same way, or they dont have a note of what they did. Even if they have a note, it is easy to get lost if you try something different.
The Communications Consumer Panel report Bridging the Gap says Ready access to informal, ongoing, one-to-one support is a key driver in not just promoting take up but also, critically, sustaining it.
The Digital Inclusion Group of the Age Action Alliance has developed the idea of digital champions working at different levels: the formal role of the professional, employed to provide help; the informal helper who has a passion for digital technology; and the spontaneous helper who may be friend or family, helping out when needed.
There is enormous scope to support those who work with, and help older people - and to explore how digital technology can best support them. These may be proxy users helping older people access the benefits of being online, or carers and front line workers willing to innovate.
Provocations 7, 9, and 10 expand on these issues and offer some ideas - particularly in providing continuing support, and training proxy users and those providing care.
Better sharing of knowledge, experience and resources could foster innovation There are many research reports, lots of great examples of the use of digital technologies to support people later in life, and plenty of ideas for development. But you can only find them if you know where to look. We came upon relatively few ways in which people in the field were systematically sharing experience outside London-based events.
For anyone themselves trying to adopt digital technology later in life - or help someone else - there is little relevant help, unless they can attend a course or other session, and that may not offer follow-through support. Guides and toolkits may not be updated after initial time-limited funding.
This means that research continues to confirm earlier findings and conclusions; projects re-invent the wheel; funders dont know where to focus, and technology users and helpers are baffled. Some of this is important in development phases: research confirming, and giving greater validity to earlier conclusions; locally owned and delivered projects seemingly re-invent from a national scale, but are built on local ownership and enthusiasm. However this is not the only process for creating disciplined innovation.
Innovation can arise from joining up as well as inventing, which suggests we need convening for collaboration, as well as competition for challenge funding. The Nominet Trust and other agencies run networking events, and there is scope to build on that activity. The main recommendation in the Nominet Trust paper by Shirley Ayres Can online innovations enhance social care? is for a knowledge hub:
We followed up with a blog post linking this to the idea of developing social ecologies of conversations and connections, promoted by Steve Dale, one of the dtlater team. The Age Action Alliance digital inclusion group (AAA DIG) is now mapping the activities and resources of their members, and recommending members to join the discussion we are running on the Social Learning Network. Well be exploring the idea of a knowledge hub in more detail there.
The diversity of application and value of digital technology in later life, reflected in our provocations and the related references, highlights how wide-ranging activity and interests are in this field.
Co-designing with a clear purpose will improve usability and relevance of digital technology later in life Although its clear that we shouldnt simply use age as a starting point for designing interventions, there are some specific usability requirements that become apparent at different life stages. There are already a range of projects, tools and resources that can be useful for people later in life - but the challenge is to ensure they are actually usable and relevant. Working with a range of people of different ages, interests and circumstances should enable us to achieve that in the redesign of existing hardware and software tools, or the create of new products and projects.
We expand on these issues in provocations 1,2 3, 5 - and suggest in 10 that those who are providing training and support will have many insights and insights that could provide a good starting point.
1 - Look at personal needs and interests as well as common motivations - one digital size wont fit all.
While there are general benefits at any time of life in using digital technology - whether for entertainment, shopping, learning, information - everyone has different priorities and these will be shaped by life experience and current circumstances. The best way to engage people with digital technology is to start where they are, the particular interests they have developed, and the personal challenges they face.
Connecting with friends and family, and pursuing personal interests and hobbies are common reasons for using digital technology later in life. In addition theres entertainment, savings to be made shopping online, information and discussion about issues of health and finance that may become pressing. Increasingly the Internet will be essential to access public services. Developments of technology for later in life should of course focus on these common motivations, with adaptation to address some of the physical and mental challenges of older age. But in all our research and discussions one message came through strongly: digital technology has to be personally relevant, useful, and usable. This is particularly important if people have concerns about privacy, security and a general lack of trust in the unknown.
Our initial propositions in the exploration provided some ideas for how to address these issues, for example: understand peoples life stories for the skills, interests and attitudes they may have developed; help people tell their stories, and explore their interests using digital technology; use digital cameras, audio recorders, ebook readers and other devices that dont require a connection; take concerns about security and privacy seriously.
Challenge: How can we help people later in life - and those who may support them - explore what might suit their individual needs?\ This provocation with comments, resources and links to ideas
2 - Build on past experience with familiar technology as well as offering new devices- they may do the job. New devices can be challenging, and recent developments of familiar equipment may offer an easier route for some. Smart TVs and smartphones may provide whats needed without learning to use a computer.
A number of the research reports - and our discussions - make the point that it may be easier to build on peoples existing use of technology, rather than introduce new devices. For example smart televisions are able to connect to the Internet, and smartphones offer access previously only available through a computer. Photo sharing online may be the natural extension of a past interest in photography, or further use for a new phone.
Our initial propositions also included the suggestion that in introducing anything new, also consider what friends may be using. Video chats only work if others have the facility; some people among friends and family will favour texting, others email. Peoples skills in adopting new technology may be influenced by past experience - so using a computer keyboard is easier if you have learned to type. If not, a tablet may be less intimidating.
While it may be tempting to suggest offering a smartphone to, for example, an older relative, a simpler phone that just offers voice and SMS texting may be more welcome. It is relatively easy to upgrade - but more difficult to help people recover from a potentially bewildering engagement with sophisticated devices.
Challenge: what scope is there for using improvements in existing, familiar technologies to meet people needs in later life as well as offering new devices? This provocation with comments, resources and links to ideas\
3 - Consider the new life skills and access people will need as technology changes our world - using technology is ceasing to be optional. Public services are becoming digital by default, and new opportunities for employment require at least an email address. It will be important to make the use of digital technology as accessible and easy as possible - or encourage people to act as proxies in helping make the connection with the online world.
Technology is changing our world - the devices we use in our homes, the way we shop, the public services that may no longer be available over the counter. The blog posts and forum discussions that we reviewed showed that for many people technology is problematic - but that it also offers opportunities to deal with the challenges of later life.
In summarising discussion on a Gransnet forum, editor Geraldine Bedell wrote that she found a mix of attitudes.
Government plans to make services digital by default - and access to the new Universal Credit online are raising concerns, and pilots are being developed to explore how to serve those who are not online.
Our propositions and discussion highlighted other issues. More people these days are working past retirement age, and moving jobs in the process. Digital skills may be important right at the start of new employment: JobCentrePlus expect people to have email addresses. Bank and post office branches are closing, with the only alternative being a longer journey, or using their online services. Its clear that we need to yield insights into how to design for the intersection of peoples changing needs through life, the personal technologies on offer, and the way technology is changing public and commercial services.
Challenge: how might we chart the challenges and opportunities people may face during later life, in order to inform development and use of digital technology? Can this also be done on an individual basis as part of help and support? This provocation with comments, resources and links to ideas
4 - Turn the challenge of learning about technology into a new social opportunity - and make it fun. Learning how to use digital technology can be challenging. It takes time, and having someone to help can be important. Loneliness and isolation are a big challenge later in life. By getting together so learning becomes a social experience we can achieve benefits on both fronts, and enjoy the experience as well.
The online world can offer new social connections that help combat loneliness and social isolation - but people usually most value some personal contact. Learning about digital technology can be tough on your own - and much research and discussion emphasises the value of learning from each other. The benefits of combining learning and sociability, and of learning from peers is well understood.
This might be done through a formal session, supported by a tutor - or through an informal social media surgery where those with experience help those completely new to digital technology, or wishing to develop new skills. There is research to support this approach, some provision but also a consensus that more is needed. An added benefit of learning within a group, especially an established peer group, is that the support can be ongoing rather than simply front-loaded.
Challenge: how could more be done to blend formal and informal approaches to make learning about digital technology a social experience, and one that might provide continuing help? This provocation with comments, resources and links to ideas
5 - See digital technology for later in life as a major market - co-designing with users could offer wider relevance. On the one hand people are living and remaining active longer, and on the other hand facing a wide range of health and social challenges for longer. This will provide a growing market among older people, and an opportunity to design and test technologies for relevance and usability with any users than have diverse interests and capabilities.
We are facing a society in which later life will extend considerably. Evidence to a Lords committee predicted that between 2010 and 2030 the number of people aged over 65 will increase by 51% and those over 85 will double during the same period. The report Ageing and the use of the Internet says:
The report cites Kohlbacher and Hang, who write that the silver market is an excellent field of application for new market disruptions as elderly customers will increasingly demand new products and services they had not demanded or had not been able to demand before. Our discussions yielded a range of ideas for innovations that would benefit older people, yet have wider application.
Funding challenge programmes have recently supported a number of projects and social enterprises in this field - and more innovative ideas could develop from collaborations between those with a deep understanding of the needs of older people, and those understanding the potential of digital technologies. Challenge: how might those working with older people help the private sector and social enterprises develop products, services and projects for this growing market? This provocation with comments, resources and links to ideas
6 - Address social isolation and other challenges through a blend of online and offline - they dont need to be different worlds. Digital technology can enable virtual friendships that lead to meetings, support social learning, and underpin projects for new forms of sharing both on the physical world and online. The greatest benefits may come from blending face-to-face and online activities.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has explored neighbourhood approaches to loneliness in four areas over three years, and being older tops the list of factors contributing to loneliness. The research is revealing ideas on how a neighbourhood can support people who are lonely - some of which may be supported by technology.
From evidence elsewhere, a mix of texts, phone calls, online networking, visits and informal get-togethers can help build a social network through which people can provide mutual support. Contributors on the Gransnet forum say how important virtual friendships can be - while also emphasising the importance of physical presence.
Innovative projects are now being developed that use digital technology to encourage and support local connections. DropBy online is a supportive online community, with chat rooms and special interest groups that also encourages get-togethers. Other projects use online systems to facilitate meeting and sharing: meals (Casserole Club); accommodation (Room for Tea); cooks tips and collaborative cooking sessions (League of meals)
Shirley Ayres, whose blog focuses on sharing resources to promote the use of social media in social care, provides an excellent roundup of these and projects showing How the Internet and digital technology can combat isolation.
Challenge: how can we build on successful personal and project experience so far to scale up the use of digital technology to address problems of social isolation and loneliness. This provocation with comments, resources and links to ideas
7 - Enable carers and care services - both for direct use of technology and to act as proxies. More could be achieved by integrating digital technology into services, and supporting carers in their use of technology. This will be increasingly important as older people who are not connected may require proxy helpers to use online public services.
There is great potential for digital technologies to be used to improve care, from helping the helpers develop digital skills and better connecting the social care market, to innovative projects that use digital technology to share caring and provide employment for carers. Similarly older patients using services like Patient Opinion to make their needs known can inform service providers.
The organisation Digital Unite specialises in helping older people use technology, and managing director Emma Solomon emphasises from their experience how important it is to provide the basic starter resources for learners and intermediaries, as well as to innovate. This support is needed on a continuing basis. Emma wrote on our ideas forum that there has been progress in the last decade, however:
Challenge: how can digital technology be used to enable existing care services and carers, and support different models of social care. This provocation with comments, resources and links to ideas
8 - Use digital technologies to enhance existing connections of family and friends - and help each other learn. Free video calls, photo-sharing, email, texting and the use of social networking sites are part of day-to-day communications with family and friends for many people later in life. Family members can help each other learn about digital technologies.
According to Forster Communications, in their Rites of passage helping people make the best of getting older report, nearly nearly half of 55 75 year olds connect to their friends with either Skype or instant messenger services, with a similar proportion spending up to 30 hours on the internet a week. The fastest growing group of Facebook users is aged 50+.
Learning about digital technologies, and using them, may bring different generations in a family closer together. Simple email lists, like Google groups, can create new connections with neighbours. Discussion in the Gransnet forum brought home how important digital technologies can be in later life, as part of family life - and how a lot more could be done to make them easier to use and more relevant.
One participant said: I never thought I would embrace technology but now I could not be without emails, smart phones, skype etc. My sister lives in Martinique we communicate regularly both having such different lives. I take photos on my mobile of the grandchildren send them to the family because we live in deepest Devon they don’t very often see them.
But another added: All of us on Gransnet are computer literate, but out there there are thousands of grans/grandads who are not. I have never sent a text. I have been shown what to do but even with glasses I can hardly read the small digital print and arthritic fingers mean I am clumsy with the small buttons and I am only 66
Challenge: how can we co-design digital technologies for later life by looking more closely at the many different ways they are used in home settings, and for communications between family and friends. This provocation with comments, resources and links to ideas
9 - Value the role that older people may have in acting as digital technology champions - and providing long term support. Older people know the challenges of using technology later in life, and may be best at providing the continuing support needed for its adoption. Demonstrations and short courses are seldom enough.
The report Ageing and the Use of the Internet says Older technology champions may offer an alternative way (to inter-generational learning) to approach the coaching of older users.
The report Simple things, done well, commissioned by the Nominet Trust from Policy Exchange, recommends setting up a UK wide network of older, tech savvy people who would be paid to go into peoples homes and community centres to teach them how to use the internet to make digital transactions such as renewing a driving licence or paying a utility bill.
Those working in the field emphasise the need for more than a one-off course, making the role of helpers who can provide continuing support doubly important. The Age Action Alliance has developed the Digital Champions Capacity Building Framework for champions working at different levels: the formal role of the professional, employed to provide help; the informal helper who has a passion for digital technology; and the spontaneous helper who may be friend or family, helping out when needed. Emma Solomon, managing director of Digital Unite, writes in the framework paper:
Challenge: how can we promote and support the work of older people as digital champions in a way that is sustainable. This provocation with comments, resources and links to ideas
10 - Look for ideas among those providing digital training and support - and help them realise them. Those working directly with users of digital technology will have insights into what works, and where development would be valuable. With some support they could turn ideas into projects.
Trainers, tutors and mentors will have powerful insights into what is likely to work - but may lack the time or opportunity to turn these insights into new practical applications.
While some organisations have produced excellent guides, they usually concentrate on standard tools and activities. They may not be maintained and updated as short-term projects end. There are example of sharing and networking, but still relatively small-scale. The Age Action Alliance digital inclusion group is now mapping the activities and resources of their members, and the Nominet Trust and other agencies run networking events.
Overall we could make more of what we have, through better networking, and connecting the do-ers, thinkers and developers.
Challenge: how can make more of the insights of those in the front line, and encourage more collaboration among those in the field. This provocation with comments, resources and links to ideas