Age UK – COVID-19 and the digital divide
“Being adaptable and flexible enough to deliver our support remotely during the pandemic has meant that we’ve continued to help older people at a time when they need us the most.”
Sarah Parkes is a project manager in Age UK’s wellbeing Team, which aims to tackle loneliness, get older people active, and support them to stay independent for longer.
Before the pandemic
Age UK has a long history of delivering digital inclusion activities by grant funding their local partners to recruit and train digital champions. Digital champions deliver awareness-raising events and activities, as well providing face-to-face and-one-to-one or group support to help people get online and improve their digital skills.
Digital support during the pandemic
At the start of the pandemic, many digital support activities initially had to stop since some older people didn’t have their own devices or internet connection at home, and they could no longer use the ones available at community facilities such as libraries or local Age UK venues, or get access online via their friends and family. Some older people didn’t have the means to purchase their own devices or internet connection, or didn’t feel they had the confidence to warrant the financial commitment.
And yet, during the pandemic, people were often expected to go online to carry out the same tasks that they had done offline pre-pandemic, such as booking GP appointments, as well as more everyday activities. One example is a couple who didn’t have the digital skills or a device to order breakfast via a mobile app, now required by their local café.
Age UK has found that the demographic of people seeking support using the internet has shifted since the pandemic, with people in their 50s now coming forward more often. This has influenced the type of support they provide:
“We are supporting people with very different activities… [For example] there is an increased demand for work-based digital skills support… We are getting a younger demographic where people have been made redundant and they haven’t necessarily needed digital skills before. Or they are having to work from home… Those people wouldn’t necessarily have classed themselves as older and needing support from an organisation like Age UK.”
During the pandemic, people were often expected to go online to carry out the same tasks that they had done offline pre-pandemic, such as booking GP appointments, as well as more everyday activities.
Challenges during the pandemic
While there are many people who need support, promoting the benefits of digital and the services Age UK delivers has proved challenging. Previously, they often marketed support services via awareness-raising events, or posters displayed in local cafés, libraries and churches. Referral routes from other activities were also affected when venues closed and their activities stopped or moved online. To overcome this, local Age UK partners relied heavily on targeted leaflet distribution to households. Age UK’s social media campaigns have also been focused on reaching the friends, families and carers of older people, rather than the older people directly.
While demand has increased, Age UK has reported that the amount of support individuals need has also increased. It is taking longer to help each individual as it is more intensive, and harder to work in groups. Where service users have little to no digital skills, remote sessions are predominantly delivered one-to-one.
Learning and positive experiences during the pandemic
Age UK were able to implement new models and processes quickly and effectively. This meant that, while they lost some digital champions, new volunteers came forward due to the benefits of the remote model – people who “aren’t confident to deliver face-to-face activity, or aren’t able to, which has been a real positive.”
Age UK and partners now ensure that a digital assessment/diagnostic tool is used in their standard processes used to assess the need of with individuals using their services. This new focus on digital has increased internal referrals. Age UK are considering moving forward with a hybrid approach incorporating “both remote and face-to-face support because, despite challenges, we have identified a lot of benefits.”
One of the key Age UK learned during the pandemic is the importance of providing older people with a printed resource that recaps the instructions delivered by the digital champion. This is something they will use from now on. Age UK intend to continue developing these resources both online and offline to support not only older people but also digital champions, friends, families and carers.