Left in isolation: how the online revolution failed our elderly people

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Eighty-seven-year-old Doris* is cut off from the outside world. Not because of her remote house, the death of her husband, or her failing health, but because she is unable to use the internet in a world that is increasingly digital.

Routine essentials, from paying bills to booking a vaccine, require hours on the phone, or are simply impossible without a computer or a mobile. So when BT inadvertently changed her phone number of 50 years, Doris’s isolation was sealed.

“She has missed calls from friends, hospital appointments, dentist appointments and probably many other things that we don’t know about,” says her neighbour, Sue Hawken. “For most people, the loss of a phone number would be an inconvenience. For Doris, it is nothing short of a disaster because she relies entirely on her landline for contact with the outside world.”

Doris’s story reflects the challenges facing millions across the country as, during the pandemic, more and more services moved exclusively online.

Telecoms regulator Ofcom estimates that 6% of households do not have the internet, and 14% of adults only access it rarely. While most are aged over 64, 11% of poorer households are offline. A larger number who do have the internet for social connections are not confident using it for banking and public services.

Sue Hawken discovered the extent of the hurdles facing offline households when she helped Doris sort out her finances. She found that the elderly widow was unwittingly paying TalkTalk £57 a month for a landline and broadband package set up by her late husband in 2013. Unaware that she had broadband, or how to use it, Doris was unable to shop around for a better deal.

Hawken transferred her to a contract at half the price with BT, the only major provider that offers landline-only deals. However, the number Doris had had for 50 years was inadvertently reallocated, and BT’s attempts to restore it resulted in being given eight different numbers over five months.

The number was eventually reinstated and compensation paid after the Observer intervened. TalkTalk says Doris had been fully informed about the package, but also paid compensation when we questioned the charges for an unused service.

“Without me noticing, she would have paid that monthly bill forever because she can’t compare prices online like the rest of us,” says Hawken. “The same happened with her electricity contract when she was sent a bill for £2,500 which she paid. I eventually managed to get the supplier to refund her overpayments, and put her on a sensible deal. She has no desire to move utilities, but the result is that the companies ramp up the charges every year.”

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For Hawken, viewing the world through the eyes of an 87-year-old was a revelation. “There are so many small things that I can do very quickly on my phone that take ages for Doris to do,” she says.

“To her, the internet is just something that gets in the way and prevents her from doing things ‘normally’. Her response is ‘Why do they have to make everything so complicated when all I want to do is speak to a person?’ I can, and do, happily help her navigate the world, but it makes me wonder how similarly vulnerable people, with no one to help, can possibly manage.”

Doris relies on deliveries of LPG gas for her heating. Her supplier recently stopped accepting cheques. Without the internet, or an accessible bank branch, Doris has to phone her bank to pay the bills. “It can take up to 30 minutes hanging on, listening to endless machine messages instructing us to use our smartphone, or download the app,” says Hawken.

“The phone line is automated, so there are a lot of numbers to press. The line quality is invariably terrible, and Doris finds it incredibly difficult to understand what is being said. One gets the impression the bank is doing everything it can to prevent people from calling them.”

Submitting electricity meter readings is, for Doris, an impossibility. The alternative for customers who are not online is to ring an automated phone line with no option to speak to a human. “Doris has three electricity meters because she used to run holiday lets,” explains Hawken. “The telephone system will only accept a reading for one meter per house. I have no idea how this one will end because the only meter it will accept a reading for is not one that is in use.”

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Doris takes five medicines daily and so requires regular repeat prescriptions. Her surgery no longer accepts prescription requests over the phone. Patients must either drop a note in at the surgery which, since Doris can no longer drive, she cannot do, or download an app to order online.

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She did not receive an invitation for a flu vaccine because alerts are sent by text. When Hawken called to inquire, she was told all available appointments had been booked by those who had responded to a text message.

“We tried booking the vaccine in Asda, but that must be booked online and the nearest appointment was 56 miles away,” adds Hawken. “I have now booked her in at a local Boots – again this had to be done online with various forms to be filled in.”

To Doris, the internet is just something that gets in the way and prevents her from doing things ‘normally’Sue Hawken, neighbour

Hawken now fears for Doris when analogue phone lines are switched off at the end of 2025 to allow a fully digitised network. All households will require an internet connection for a functioning phone line. Those who are unable, or unwilling, to sign up for broadband will be provided with a simple internet connection which they will have to set up to continue to make calls.

However, there’s a possibility that some phone numbers will be lost during the transition, older handsets may no longer work, and householders are being advised to buy mobile phones as a backup because digital lines won’t work during power cuts or internet outages.

Charity Age UK is calling for greater investment in digital skills training and subsidised broadband kits, after it found that 42% of people aged over 75 did not use the internet.

A survey it conducted last year found cost and confidence were the main barriers, and it warned that millions of people were being left behind as companies and government departments cut overheads by moving all their services online.

“Given the 3 million people aged 65 and over in the UK who do not use the internet, it’s essential there are alternatives so they do not miss out,” says Age UK charity director Caroline Abrahams. “Everyone should be able to access information and public services, manage their finances, make GP appointments and buy shopping without undue hassle or expense, whether they are online or not.”

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Hawken says that the world as experienced by Doris is terrifying. “Things I take for granted are a menacing mystery because she’s clueless about technology, and just wants to talk to a human being like she always has,” she says. “Probably she should have embraced computers years ago, but, back then, she could have had no idea how quickly and completely everyday life would move online.

“Now, with her cognitive skills declining, it’s too late for her to learn, and she has to watch, baffled, as the world shuts her out.”

* Name has been changed

How to be a digital buddy

A report from communications watchdog Ofcom shows that the over-75s are the most likely not to have internet in their home, with more than a quarter offline.

Concern has been raised about the potential for older people to be overcharged, and not to have access to the best deals from utility services and insurance companies as a result of the disengagement from online marketplaces.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and consumer group Which? have raised concerns about the sale of insurance for white goods to elderly people who may be vulnerable and buying unsuitable policies.

Charity Age UK says that half of older people feel out of touch with the pace of modern life and is encouraging younger people to become “digital buddies” to unsure elderly people. This involves highlighting the benefits – such as staying connected to relatives – of being online and encouraging them towards sites which may assist them in their interests, such as eBay for antique enthusiasts.

People who have not used technology in their working lives, are over the age of 80, or live alone, are more likely to be disconnected, says the charity. Shane Hickey

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