Ageing in the time of Corona – Ageing, Loneliness and Technology

As we are slowly readjusting into life amid the second COVID wave, the third one hit us all with new force. Therefore it‘s more important than ever to focus on mental health, loneliness and social exclusion. 

When it comes to loneliness and social exclusion, research is showing us that it is our teenagers and our elderly that suffer the most (1) and now the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown of many European countries has forced us all to adapt to a digital world. For the younger generation, who has grown up with technology it may come easy, for many of our oldest, there is a vast divide in digital literacy between generations. 

However, lets pause for a bit and consider that Mick Jagger is 77 years old and still rocking it, so there is indeed a fine line between ageism and where we act on stereotypes of old people as frail, lonely, dependent, and technologically illiterate.

No alt text provided for this image

The modern-day culture tends to medicalize ageing – make it into a medical problem and that has created new definitions of health and expectations of normality and markets. The line between normal ageing and disease tend to be blurred and a person getting close to the retirement age becomes a subject of worrying to both health care systems as well as families. We do also know that health is a complex thing and is influenced by several variables, such as socioeconomic status, race, lifestyle, genetics and general health literacy, and now digital literacy as well, to name a few. 

The mental health impact of Covid-19 is likely to be with us for a ‘long period of time’, the Psychological Society of Ireland has warned (2).

With this knowledge, how can we guarantee that people experiencing loneliness and social exclusion are enabled to live in dignity and take an active part in society?

Undoubtedly, equitable access to quality services plays an integral part in any endeavour for social inclusion. Based on a human-based and holistic approach, ageing should be mainstreamed in all areas of services provided by society. 

The UN General Secretary Policy Brief on COVID 19 and Mental Health has stated that supporting community actions that strengthen social cohesion and reduce loneliness by e.g. investing in mental health interventions that can be delivered remotely, for example, quality-assured tele-counselling, can be beneficial (3).

A working group within the Cost Action, ROSEnet – Reducing Old-Age Social Exclusion: Collaborations in Research and Policy – responds to research, policy and societal challenges with respect to the social exclusion of older people in Europe, and beyond. In a briefing paper published earlier this year, they conclude: 

Digital services may be a way to overcome social exclusion from traditional services. Paying attention to old-age exclusion from ICT-based services (Information and communications technology) is important as we are living in a world under comprehensive digitalisation which is producing major social changes in contemporary societies. Services, behaviours and lifestyles are deeply influenced by the availability and use of these technologies in every sphere of individuals’ lives, such as for instance interpersonal communication, commerce, education, healthcare and public services. However, the transition from traditional to progressively digitised services may lead to new forms of social exclusion for some social groups and individuals, who may have less digital skills, resources, interest or willingness to use digitised services (4). 

We talk about digital illiteracy of the elderly, yet we know that many of today’s elders are technogenarians; that is, science and technology are integrated into the every- day life experience of old age. Science and technology are major forces in the social construction of ageing, and ageing is an often unacknowledged component of technoscientific imagination and practice. 

Having said that, and since older people are a heterogeneous population with different characteristics, needs and preferences, exclusion in this field has various meanings. For some older people, e.g. those who received a limited education and socio-economic resources and people living with a disability, digital services may easily represent a barrier for obtaining and benefitting from the services they want and need (5) However, if weaknesses of digital services for these groups are addressed (e.g. difficulty of use), they can constitute a way to overcome usual barriers of traditional services and to reach underserved and deprived areas where no/few face-to-face services exist, as in the case of digital health services.

A new study, carried out by researchers in the University College London and published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, has led experts in geriatric health to call for a state subsidy and provisions to close the “digital divide” among older people after a UK study found frequent internet use can improve mental health(6).

The pandemic has brought on new challenges and adaption to a new workflow in terms of getting quality health services to our elderly. We need to encourage use, but also enable the use of online services, such that people are constantly updated on how to use digital support services. This calls for health care systems, charities and smaller social service entities to have the right systems in place and above all start using GDPR compliant systems, that are encrypted and securely store data to protect the privacy of both clinician and their clients instead of using business platforms when providing services to our clients.

There have been so many negatives about the pandemic for older people, but one of the big outcomes is this new engagement in the elderly using the internet and digital services. 

Perhaps the genie is out of the bottle now that older people have the most to gain from the internet.

Kristin Einarsdóttir is an OT, MPH and holds an MPhil in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict Studies. She’s the owner of Nordic Trailblazers and works as a Consulting Specialist for Kara Connect virtual offices for counsellors and therapists and professionals in healthcare, education and beyond.

References

1. Sundhedsprofilen 2017 [Internet]. Region Sjælland. [cited 2018 Apr 11]. Available from: http://www.regionsjaelland.dk/Sundhed/samarbejde-og-indsatser/hvordanhardudet/Sider/default.aspx

2. McGrath D. Mental health impact of the pandemic will be with us ‘for a long time’, experts warn [Internet]. TheJournal.ie. [cited 2020 Aug 25]. Available from: https://www.thejournal.ie/mental-health-pandemic-psychological-society-5179679-Aug2020/

3. UN Secretary-General’s policy brief: The impact of COVID-19 on women | Digital library: Publications [Internet]. UN Women. [cited 2020 Aug 25]. Available from: https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2020/04/policy-brief-the-impact-of-covid-19-on-women

4. Cost RoseNet Action Policy [Internet]. [cited 2020 Jul 27]. Available from: http://rosenetcost.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/cost_rosenet_actionpolicy4_web.pdf

5. Gell NM, Rosenberg DE, Demiris G, LaCroix AZ, Patel KV. Patterns of technology use among older adults with and without disabilities. The Gerontologist. 2015 Jun;55(3):412–21. 

6. Lam SSM, Jivraj S, Scholes S. Exploring the Relationship Between Internet Use and Mental Health Among Older Adults in England: Longitudinal Observational Study. J Med Internet Res. 2020;22(7):e15683. 

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: