TThe last thing I would like to do is lecture the “older and better” (as my grandmother called the older generation) about their behaviour. We old people already know how to maintain happiness and health. We’ve taken our hits, taken our workout, and given up smoking and eating greens. So we don’t need any young person – or worse, an old TV presenter – to tell us what to do. But I’ve learned an important lesson in the past two years since Covid hit, and I thought maybe others could benefit from it, too. It comes to the Internet.
My generation is very wary of the internet – a view I understand and share to some extent. Every day there are new warnings about the dangers of cyberspace: scams and scams targeting the elderly. Callers to the Silver 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 baffling screen was the challenge that beat them. In a 2019 Office for National Statistics survey, less than half of people over the age of 75 said they had used the Internet recently.
That wouldn’t be a problem, except that a lot of things are now moving online – and the triumphant march of technology is leaving a huge number of seniors very isolated. Take the shopping. My grandmother enjoyed wandering the main street, exchanging gossip with the shopkeepers who greeted her by name and asked about, recognized and appreciated her family. Now, my main street is a tangle of charity shops and a few remaining stores and supermarkets. The human face has been replaced with a tap on the screen.
Even before the pandemic, Age UK found that in England 1.4 million elderly people often feel lonely. It is not easy to admit, because the unit bears a stigma. The word we hear most often from callers to the Silver Helpline is the word “b” – “burden.” One anonymously wrote to me that since she lost her husband 54 years ago, she sometimes goes “for three days at a time without talking to anyone. I’m an optimist by nature and sometimes I need to get through another useless day when I feel like a waste of space.” It is no wonder that loneliness causes severe damage to mental and physical health.
I don’t think there is a magic bullet to combat loneliness. But after seeing how technology was cutting down the elderly, I learned to my surprise during lockdown that it could also offer a solution. When we couldn’t meet face to face, I brought my family and friends over to my house. We couldn’t travel or hug, but still every day we could laugh and chat and send pictures to each other. Work continued – I attended weekly meetings via FaceTime and Skype. If only Boris Johnson had realized, as did I, that he could use Zoom to party. It’s convenient and easy and I still do it. Even though I live deep in the woods, I still feel connected to the outside world, and the skills I learned during lockdown continue to prove their value to me day in and day out.
The key is getting started. Third Age University, U3A, has conducted lessons during lockdown to encourage members to use the internet, to improve their skills and have fun. In one session, 80 U3A members playing the ukulele joined in a virtual jam session. When Covid first drove me out of London into the wild beauty of the new forest, I only had three kilometers of extremely fragile copper wire connecting my laptop to the outside world, so Zoom, Teams conferencing and video streaming were impossible. You realize just how important high-quality broadband is. Even when this came to our village, six months later, I still had to learn how to actually use Zoom and Skype, but once memorable passwords were invented (and learned how to reinvent them when, as inevitably happens, they became memorable) they became your best friends. The good news I’ve found from the last 18 months of Zoom is that you just have to look respectable to the waist, so you can spend the day in comfy slippers. And every day online shopping turns into Christmas with the parcels arriving, you can’t remember the order, but turn out to be exactly what you wanted, at least some of the time. And if you sometimes forget to bring your voice back, right, everyone?
It is up to us seniors to take the first step. If any of us feel excluded or overwhelmed by technology, we should swallow our pride and ask for help. We need to encourage our friends, families, charities and volunteers to guide and guide us into a brave new world. I suspect it would be much easier than we fear: if we could write, we could use the computer.
And he deserves it. A review of the literature on the effect of the Internet on the elderly found plenty of evidence for a “positive effect of computer use on psychological functioning and well-being of older adults,” and that Internet use “was also associated with decreased loneliness and depression, improved social connectedness, self-esteem and cognitive performance, and improved self-efficacy, self-control, self-determination, social interaction, education and skill development.”
Yes, there are new dangers, but any adventure has its risks. I would remind any hesitant old fellows that inventing the automobile meant learning to drive, memorizing the highway code, and buckling up in order to stay safe. The same goes for surfing the Internet: it’s a challenge at first, but it’s worth it.
Like a car, the Internet allows us to explore the world, join our friends and loved ones, and celebrate together. And if we beat the computer at first, this is a great excuse to call our grandchildren and ask them for help.
Esther Rantzen is a journalist and broadcaster who founded the child protection charity ChildLine and the free and confidential Silver Line Help for Seniors (0800 4 70 80 90).