The number of seniors is currently estimated at over 130 million. With longevity and better health care, this number will increase to 194 million by 2031 and reach around 319 million by 2050. We cannot afford to neglect the critical needs of so many people, who represent a fifth of our total population by 2050. To ensure that they are not left out, it is essential to facilitate their online access
Few things have changed our world and our lives as much as the Covid-19 pandemic. From months of “house arrest” during lockdowns to working from home, to becoming masked warriors fighting the virus online everything, we had to learn, adapt and change quickly. Some of them, including remote work and online interaction, are likely to become permanent features of our lives as businesses have also changed and embraced this new paradigm. Covid has also brought home the terrible inequalities in our society, creating an awareness and degree of empathy for the disadvantaged that was previously lacking.
Economic inequalities have also amplified inequalities in education. The shift to online education has led to a very large proportion of them falling behind their classmates because they are unable to properly participate in online learning. Lack of access to smart phones or computers and poor internet connectivity compounded the disadvantages of their economic status and low level of parental education. This is on top of the absence of the essential learning that comes from interacting with peers and socializing: a result of governments’ insistence on keeping schools closed.
Students (the most disadvantaged among them, in particular) have undoubtedly been seriously affected. There is, however, another group whose difficulties are hardly recognized: the elders.
An overwhelming majority of them cannot afford a computer or a smartphone; Of the rest, a large portion lack the necessary skills, having spent most of their lives in a non-digital environment. Only a tiny percentage have the affordability, access and skills to navigate the new online world and reap the benefits.
Yet it is seniors who, more than others, can greatly benefit from online access. This is especially the case for those whose physical movements are restricted for health reasons. Additionally, with stay-at-home guidelines for those 60 and older, their only access to the outside world is through electronic means. Ordering essentials like medicine or groceries, remote health services, shopping, banking, socializing through video calls, watching streaming services: all of this requires access and online skills. Without it, seniors are disabled. Even in a post-Covid world – whenever – many of these services will continue to be online, for cost or convenience reasons.
The number of seniors is currently estimated at over 130 million. With longevity and better health care, this number will increase to 194 million by 2031 and reach around 319 million by 2050. We cannot afford to neglect the critical needs of so many people, who represent a fifth of our total population by 2050. To ensure that they are not left out, it is essential to facilitate their online access.
In this, governments (at central, state and local level) have the primary responsibility. They might do well to take a cue from Vice President Venkaiah Naidu. When he launched the SACRED (Senior Able Citizens for Re-Employment in Dignity) portal a few months ago, he placed great emphasis on the need to transmit digital culture to the elderly. A targeted program, possibly as part of the National Digital Literacy Mission, could give this effort the necessary impetus.
The responsibility, however, cannot rest with the government alone: the community and their own families have a big role to play. However, beyond these, and particularly in rural areas, civil society organizations (CSOs) must play an important role. An example is HelpAge India’s (HI) digital literacy program. It empowers seniors by introducing them to the online world through workshops across the country, which provide them with digital training, in addition to advice on financial planning, education and awareness of their rights and privileges. .
CSOs have a reach to the last mile and they could, in partnership with the appropriate government agencies, bring digital literacy to even the most remote corners of the country. Moreover, CSOs have a natural inclination to search for new solutions, and they could find innovative ways to ensure digital literacy even for those who are traditionally illiterate. Once done, they could partner with state and central governments to expand the program and reach millions of seniors.
It is essential that while teaching transactional skills – or even for those who already have them – awareness and training is provided on the fundamentals of cybersecurity. Today, with the increase in cybercrime, it is a necessity, especially as we start to do more financial transactions digitally. Therefore, it must be an integral part of any digital literacy program.
Clearly, there is an urgent need for an intensive e-empowerment program for seniors, with two components: training and access. The first was discussed above; on this last point, the government must look for ways to provide laptops or smart phones to all seniors who cannot afford them.
Together, these will not only empower seniors, but will also help reduce the burden on their caregivers. In fact, a successful program can help turn seniors into “managers of the house,” taking on responsibility for things like shopping, paying bills, and family banking needs.
For single seniors, basic digital skills will greatly improve their living comfort and help them become more independent. It could also open up new avenues of livelihood and income, for example, through online cooking classes or other skills seniors may possess. Such a program must therefore be high on the agenda of the government, which can better implement it in partnership with CSOs.
(The writer is an author. His latest book is “Decisive Decade: India 2030, Gazelle or Hippo”. He chairs HelpAge India and is associated with a number of other CSOs in education and development. )