This is what digital exclusion feels like

There is very little support to help older Australians break the digital divide, writes the chief executive of COTA SA.

Recently a 75-year-old man from Streaky Bay rang us (COTA SA) because he had been cut off the Aged Pension. He does not own or know how to use a computer. He drove to Centrelink in Ceduna, only to be told that their office did not deal with the Aged Pension – but the Port Lincoln Office did. He drove to Port Lincoln. He got the same response – he was told he should go online or ring Centrelink to get action. He called Centrelink, waited almost three hours, gave up and then turned to us in despair.

We worked with him and were able to help him solve the problem. He tried to make a complaint to the Ombudsman, in the spirit of making the system aware of how difficult it was for someone who wasn’t online savvy, but in another cruel twist to the story he was told they could not take his complaint until – you guessed it – he had registered his complaint directly with Centrelink online or by phone.

He is not alone, and it’s not just a problem for older people – but it does affect many of them.

Large numbers of people are marooned by a digital divide, completely hamstrung in their interactions with businesses, government departments and others because they don’t speak the language of ‘online’. Their native tongue is telephone, letter or face to face and, try as they may, they don’t have the means, the skills or the confidence to join the digital world. It is for them a bridge too far, a language impossible to learn and an expense and complication beyond their reach.

And there is very little support to help them transition and explore.

The problem is compounded by the proliferation of a ‘romantic’ view of ageing which boasts about the thousands of older people flocking to the internet. This is also true – in South Australia alone 633,000 people are aged over 50 and many of them (and especially those whose work lives have included opportunities to get some basic competence and exposure in the digital environment) are embracing the many uses of the internet.

But for every one of those who are, many are not. Many older users may have an email address and are therefore considered ‘online’, but use it infrequently, mostly with family and often without much confidence. They are overwhelmed, bewildered and not engaging with applications beyond email. Despite their best efforts to learn the new language of IT, their connection is tenuous and marginal.

Jane Mussared
COTA SA Chief Executive Jane Mussared

The latest report measuring Australia’s digital divide measures inclusion using three indicators – access, ability and affordability. And, according to that report, the gaps between older and younger Australians, between those in and out of the workforce and that between higher and lower income households have widened since 2014. This goes to the heart of the issue for many older South Australians – they are in each of those disadvantaged groups and there is almost no interest in them, support for them or even empathy with their alienation. The risk factors for exclusion are compounded for those living in South Australia (now the most digitally excluded state or territory in Australia) and in country areas.

Digital exclusion compounds a sense of isolation for many older people. There is a rising impatience with those not transacting online among government and business who are abandoning non-digital communications. An increasing number are even imposing financial penalties on people unable to engage digitally including by charging a fee for paper bills.

Only recently Qantas and Jetstar announced they would phase out printed plane tickets over the coming years and transition to digital boarding passes. While the intention to reduce waste is honourable, where does this leave travellers who do not use computers or smartphones? How will they navigate a system that is supposed to connect them with loved ones, not separate them further?

Older South Australians are now the least digitally connected age group, living in the least digitally connected state, and they are surrounded by indifference to their growing sense of isolation.

We join others in asking each year for our state and federal governments to do two things:

  • to make a substantial investment in supporting older people to get the skills they need to get online.
  • to make sure that they continue to support mechanisms for interaction with government and business other than online.

Their response is at best dismissive and at worst cruel. They reason that this generation of non-users has a limited lifespan. Perhaps 20 years, and that’s no time at all – certainly not worthy of reflection or investment. No time at all that is unless in the mean time you are trying to live, bank, manage a household, shop, interact and connect.

Jane Mussared
Chief Executive, COTA SA
cotasa.org.au

Header image:
Shutterstock

Adelaide In-depth

Get the latest stories, insights and exclusive giveaways delivered straight to your inbox every week.