While many people across Scotland have been able to adapt quite rapidly to working and socialising from home, there are a great deal of older people who lack the necessary skills to stay connected through technology.
Charities are urging people not to “forget” those who are becoming increasingly isolated as a result of the pandemic.
The chief executive of Age Scotland, Brian Sloan, has said that loneliness was “already a public health epidemic” before the crisis hit and compared the effect “as damaging to the lives of those affected as smoking 15 cigarettes a day”.
He added that the period of lockdown will have intensified this problem, especially among older people, and said that the present situation has highlighted the difficulties many face when it comes to accessing technology.
“Many older people in Scotland have embraced technology as a vital tool to stay connected with their loved ones since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.
“Being separated from family and friends has been one of the biggest challenges facing older people and it is heartening to see how many have adapted to Zoom calls, Skype bedtime stories and WhatsApp video chats as a means of keeping in touch.
“Having the right technology is of particular benefit for older people who have been self-isolating and are living alone. It lets them interact with others and see familiar faces.
“However not everybody has access to technology. Around 500,000 over 65s in Scotland – the equivalent to the population of Edinburgh – do not use the internet.
“The cost of technology is also an issue for many older people. Those on low incomes are less likely to have internet enabled technology in their homes.
“There are 150,000 pensioners in Scotland living in poverty and many won’t have technology, let alone high speed broadband or data connection to the internet.
“It’s the same with smartphones. Their use among the over 65s is incredibly low, with some figures suggesting just one in five have one in their pocket.
“So while technology is of huge benefit to those who have it, we must not forget that there are tens of thousands of older people in Scotland who are growing increasingly isolated during this pandemic and who cannot use technology to reach out for support. It is important that they do not get left behind.
“We need to find ways to help them feel connected to their family, friends and community even if they don’t have technology, by using the phone, writing letters or sending postcards.”
The Scotland coordinator of AbilityNet, Chris Grant, has echoed Mr Sloan’s views and said that people are mainly reaching out to them for two reasons; they don’t have the internet and they’re not able to afford technology.
“The amount of people I hear saying that they just cannot afford to get a basic tablet is sad. You can get a basic tablet now for around £49,” he said.
“People are worried about going into a contract but these service providers are being really good with customers right now and just want to try and help as much as they can.”
AbilityNet, which currently has 12 volunteers active in Tayside and 52 nationwide, provides free impartial technology advice and training to anyone who is over the age of 55 or who is living with a disability or medical condition.
Mr Grant said that they have had to ramp up their response in order to cope with the pandemic.
“Our role is to support people. Since the start of coronavirus, we have told people to contact us now, more than ever, if they need any help,” he explained.
“We’re now supporting more charities and third sector organisations because a lot of their members have been forced to move into digital. We’ve really upped our response.
“We are increasingly busy and the service just continues to grow every week.
“When I came on board 18 months ago I had four volunteers across Scotland and we’d maybe get five or six calls a month. Now we’re getting 50 calls a month, particularly during Covid-19. It has very much increased.
“I can’t comment on specific cases but what I can tell you is that we have a lot of people, of all ages, across Scotland and some of them have been really upset [by what’s going on].
“When I hear somebody in tears to me on the phone saying that they’ve not seen their granddad or their nephew or a niece, it really pulls a chord for me.
“It’s a horrible time for many and there is a lot of depression around it.
“We speak to a lot of different people in different capacities and there are a lot of people saying that they’re really down, so that’s why we’re working with organisations to try and eliminate this by looking at technology which will help with that.
“A lot of this stuff focuses on digital inclusion which, in my opinion, honestly affects mental health. If it wasn’t for technology, I don’t know what I’d be up to. It’s frightening.
“People have to adjust to working from home which, in itself, is tricky and again technology is needed. Not to mention, it’s the best way to keep in touch with family and friends.
“There are so many great things out there that people don’t know about and we’re trying to focus on changing that attitude.”
Scott Stewart, manager of Disability Information Scotland, said that their helplines were flooded with calls at the beginning of the pandemic but they related largely to an increased need for practical help.
He added that when they do have calls relating to technology, it tends to be from older people who are unable to apply for a blue badge from home and need to utilise library facilities.
- Age Scotland: Their helpline is a lifeline service for older people feeling alone. They would encourage anyone feeling isolated to call them free on 0800 12 44 222 for a friendly chat.
- AbilityNet: They provide a wide variety of information, all accessible via their website. They can also be contacted on 0800 048 7642 during UK office hours.
- Disability Information Scotland: They aim to guide people through the maze of disability information and can be reached on 0300 323 9961 or via text on 0778 620 0707.