Tech obsession leaves elderly on the sidelines



Australians have the reputation of being early adopters of technology. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics around 86 per cent of people have access to the internet at home.

Hands of older man texting on mobile phone (REB Images / Getty Creative)Business people will have different smart phones for work and home, news is increasingly accessed online, teenagers have multiple interactions with social media. It seems that all the world is happily 'connected' — paying bills, shopping and banking online, and ordering food and transport with handy phone apps.

Despite such impressive internet use figures, it's not blanket coverage. There are groups disadvantaged by a technologically-connected world. Access in remote or very remote parts of Australia is 77 per cent, and as people age there is less take-up of the internet. For households without children aged under 15, 82 per cent had access to the internet, compared with 97 per cent with children under 15.

Some people are technologically illiterate or averse, some find they cannot afford to pay for connections, while others have no interest in internet access at all. This last group in particular, who are often elderly, is at a constant disadvantage in a world where government and other organisations have found an easy way to streamline processes and save money by insisting everyone go online.

Apply for your pension? No worries, just upload all the required documents on your phone. You need to declare your fortnightly income so you can continue to receive the pension? Not a problem, you can access Centrelink on an app — but don't forget to set up your myGov account first. Don't have an email? It's not that hard to set one up. Don't have a phone or internet at home? Why not?

Of course, it's a no-brainer for government departments to save costs and become more efficient by pushing mobile applications and the internet as the main point of contact. This however is a clear indication of a lack of care for certain vulnerable groups. At best it's a failure to imagine that some lives are vastly different. At worst it's a deliberate policy to make access to government help as difficult as possible.

There are people without access to the internet or knowledge to negotiate the often labyrinthine rules and regulations of government departments, especially Centrelink. Pensioners and other welfare recipients are required report their fortnightly income. If you don't have internet access you either visit an office (most often not an option) or you phone.


"It's not just government departments that are making life difficult for those without internet access."


Phoning is an exercise in frustration and time-wasting. I once managed to bake three trays of biscuits while waiting for someone to answer the phone. To add insult to injury, while waiting you're subjected to numerous automated messages that tell you it's an offence not to tell Centrelink of changes to your circumstances. This prompts a Pavlovian response of screaming into the void, 'I would be happy to tell you once you answer the phone!'

It's not just government departments that are making life difficult for those without internet access. Many elderly people have the time and inclination to volunteer for different organisations and causes, but come up against a number of rules that block their ability to give their time.

While understanding reasons for police and child safety checks, obtaining those checks is difficult for those without internet access. Where once community group organisers could collect police check forms from a local police station, have volunteers fill them in and return them en masse, everything is now done online.

If the volunteer does not have internet at home, much of the work will fall to the organisers. This often involves setting up email addresses that will never be used again. The work falls on the individual, and some people find the extra work so burdensome they cease volunteering.

For the most part, technology is beneficial, but those who struggle with internet use and access are increasingly being sidelined. Technology is not a one-size-fits-all answer and government needs to acknowledge that and find ways to be more inclusive.



Michele FrankeniMichele Frankeni is Madonna magazine associate editor.

Topic tags: Michele Frankeni, elderly citizens, technology, Centrelink



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Existing comments

We have Orange Laundry. Why not Orange IT?

roy chen yee | 02 May 2019  

Not only are many bodies moving to internet only but they are doing an appalling job of designing their websites. I have used email since 13 years before the internet, and I only ring when errors or lack of coverage of an issue fails on a website. This happens lot and takes many hours to sort out. The casual abuse of privacy (my health record is a schocking example) and reliance on privacy hostile requirements(pop ups java and persistence cookies) is becoming prevelant making web use increasingly risky and difficult. I have to run a separate insecure browser fir them and a VPN

Marcus wigan | 02 May 2019  

as a "baby boomer" I have experienced all of the moves to use of online sites, non-real person interactions, increasing change from people oriented to cost and time saving methods of communication used by the organisations themselves. I have a sense always that we are being shepherded into a space that has nothing to do with what is best, for us, or for service delivery. and I think it is morally wrong to do so. there must be some way of retaining the human contact no matter what. what happens to the 90 year old person at home with only a telephone, and a hearing problem? who does he talk to?

Helen Kane | 02 May 2019  

Worst is that the old are sometimes mentally or physically in need of help via phone or letter. Plus the remote and/or elderly can have slow Internet and no mobile connection. We have experienced all that. No e contact for weeks, being told by an Aged Care woman to download a form. Cruel and stupid.

Karis | 02 May 2019  

Michele, May I put a different light on your frustration in phoning Centrelink. I chose a face to face interview/ question time with said organisation. This involves driving through traffic & finding a park within hiking distance. Upon arrival I was advised there would be a wait, there were 15 clients ahead of me. When I returned home there were NO biscuits waiting for me. I am currently thinking of enrolling in a home cooking course.

Ross Lane | 03 May 2019  

Your article high lights for me why it is so important that our Public Libraries stay resourced, opened and well staffed.

Kath | 03 May 2019  

Timely and important article thanks, Michele. Good that you have highlighted the cruelty and unfairness to many older people embedded in current 'communications' with government and others. The IT acolytes make so many assumptions about the people they never see, nor know. This suits their penny pinching overlords and poses some pretense of service to tax payers. These assumptions include: that a person has an internet connection, that they have learned the skills to use the connection late in life, that they have alternative ways to contact service deliverers, and that cost cutting is a service. the result as you suggest is a sense of impotence and frustrated isolation for many in the community. Then at the other end the staff at call centers are like battery hens, with little quality of work life. A major reason for the inordinate waiting times is the lack of sufficient staff to do the job so they are continually overworked. Then to increase the pain there is the muzak which would stop chickens laying or suit a torture chamber. All this amounts to a heap of bad service, waste of time, frustration and isolation. But who is responsible? The IT folk are getting paid. The accountants are cutting costs (and service) and the punters are so disconnected that they have no common voice. Serious matters and on one responsible?

Michael D. Breen | 05 May 2019  

Fortunately, at 79 I'm internet savvy because of my .work experience. : nevertheless, I have two wonderful grandsons who help me with any difficulties I have. Without them I would find my devices very frustrating at times. Once it was the elders who passed down knowledge to the young, now it is the reverse. I would like to add that we oldies could still pass on our wisdom to our young but I'm afraid I see too many old people who appear not to have sought wisdom.

Anna | 05 May 2019  

recently I changed internet providers looking for better rate and service. When nbn failed no technical help came. After 2 weeks of calls to and from India I figured out myself what a house calling tech could have fixed in 5 minutes. After moving heavy furniture away from the nbn box, so I could lie on the floor reaching under the box to swap plugs around. I'm old but resilient and fit but it nearly drove me crazy. I fear more vulnerable elderly people, needing these services to maintain contact, one day will do something awful to themselves, someone else, their home, equipment or someone else's. I sure felt like it. I don't blame the Indian phone workers , its the available work for people with a tertiary education and some English. They try but its the worst way to manage these problems as they know. They also are victims of this nasty system which seems to be based on doing as little as possible of any use for anyone, and of course if it doesn't work its always the customers fault. Accent misunderstandings are worse for older people with poorer hearing. I doubt this system is profitable. Just stupid.

Jillian | 06 May 2019  

The elderly are on the sidelines because our society puts them on the sidelines. In parts of the world where the elderly continue to live together with their extended family, tech use and devices is not an issue. Simples.

Aurelius | 07 May 2019  

I found this article spot on after difficulties dealing with IT call centres despite being reasonably tech savvy. A recent Eureka Street article called on us olds not to correct young people's grammar because they were not taught the rules at school, yet we are treated with distain for not being totally au fait with the technology they grew up with.

Elizabeth Harrington | 08 May 2019  

Another area where older people are being disadvantaged is banking. Today I went into a branch of the CBA to deposit money into another person's account, discovered that there were no tellers and was informed that I could do the transaction myself at the ATM. This happened recently at another branch of the same bank. I do not want to do it myself which is why I go during business hours. I would rather have someone who is trained do it for me. So much for service!

Elizabeth Harrington | 09 May 2019  

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