The Question of Digital Illiteracy in Older Adults and COVID-19

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Entering the 27th month of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not difficult for us to grasp a sense of how substantial the consequences of the outbreak has been. It seems obvious that our methods of personal interactions have changed semipermanently: online meetings have become the new norm, we now smile with our eyes, and we have been socially distanced more than ever. The consequences of older adults’ social isolation during the pandemic are specifically exacerbated by the prevalent usage of technology during the modern era. In this perspective, the issue of “digital illiteracy” is a new question that has been raised amongst social scientists and public health experts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With heightened health risks, older adults are the predominant targets of COVID-19. Mortality increases exponentially above COVID patients over the age of 50; between the ages of 50 and 64, the mortality rate from COVID-19 is approximated at x25 (compared to the 18-29 range) (CDC, 2020). Adults are also the most vulnerable group in terms of severe physical damage caused by a COVID-19 infection. Due to existing health conditions and compromised immune systems, older adults are significantly more likely to develop severe symptoms, thus facing higher chances of hospitalization (CDC, 2021) and permanent health damages. A data analysis from China calculated that hospital admissions were reported in 4.5% of the cases in the 40-49 age range, but rates rose up to 18.4% in the 80+ age range (Verity et al., 2020). It is clear to see that the pandemic presents a significant physical threat to the older population, but the consequences of the virus are more substantial. In fact, it is the preventative measures placed to restrict the spread of the virus which puts the population at risk; social isolation amongst older adults pose risks for the population’s mental health; it seems that social change caused by the pandemic may be here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Older adults, who are no longer part of the workforce, are more likely to live alone with a lack of access to stable social connections (NCOAging, 2021). Moreover, the pandemic has introduced travel restrictions and difficulties, which result in the severing of relationships and family interactions for many older adults. Social distancing policies have also reduced the operations of rehabilitation facilities (such as communal gyms) (Mills, Kaye & Mody, 2020), increased isolation in nursing home residents, and restrained community activities. Whilst such policies have mitigated the rapid spread and mass transmission of the virus, they have exacerbated the vulnerability of psychological issues that older adults have to face. In a study conducted by the University of Michigan, 19% of adults in the 50-80 range reported poorer sleep quality compared to pre-pandemic conditions; 28% of adults in the same age group also reported worsening anxiety and worry since the beginning of the pandemic (University of Michigan, 2021). Through these numbers, it is clear to see the correlation between isolation and worsening mental health conditions amongst the older population. As the pandemic enters its fourth year, the unforeseeable trajectory of the current crisis further exacerbates the anxiety and concern spread across our society.

In spite of this, it must be noted that the same psychosocial issues are present amongst younger populations. In a survey conducted by Active Minds, 80% of college students admitted to the pandemic’s negative impact on their mental health through symptoms such as anxiety, stress, and general feelings of sadness (Active Minds, 2021). However, an important factor to consider is how the different population demographics are able to connect with the rest of their community. Recent developments in technology and globalization have introduced communication methods that ensure connectivity across the continent. However, not everyone has adequate access to these platforms.

In this context, digital illiteracy amongst older adults is an important issue that we must tackle. In the era of social distancing, connecting over video calls and social media has become an essential part of our lives. Zoom and Skype are no longer foreign names to the general population (D’cruz and Banerjee, 2020). However, the fundamental issue begins with the basic lack of access to secure internet connection. In a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, only 69% of those 65 and over have broadband access and the proportion drops to 58% for those 75 or older (Pew Research Center, 2021). Moreover, for adults that rely on public connections (such as libraries or employment centers), the pandemic’s closure of public facilities further prevent their access to the internet (CETF, 2017). Not only does this lack of internet access prevent older adults from digitally connecting to their loved ones, it presents a barrier for them to gain the most up-to-date information (eg. vaccinations, medications, welfare policies) about the virus and the pandemic. Moreover, with the rise of contactless services run on phone applications, such as grocery delivery services and online reservation portals, older adults are severed from accessing methods of improving their quality of life.

Many state governments are implementing policies to mitigate the digital marginalization of senior citizens. Most of these efforts require the collaboration of relevant industries (such as telecommunications, ISPs, and tech companies) and governments to distribute mobile devices or improve network connectivity. For example, the Rhode Island Office of Healthy Aging has introduced programs such as the Lifeline Wireless Telephone Service or the ATEL Program which attempts to reduce the digital divide present in the current pandemic society. By offering affordable or free service plans for the low-income communities and demonstrating accessibility options on devices, these policy programs are instances of government efforts in aiding the digitization of the senior community. The unpredictable speed of the current technological developments result in difficulties of designing and implementing policies that span across multiple generations. But with the appropriate attention to communities, these policies can indeed come to life, as exemplified in the above case.

Works Cited:

  1. Cases, Data, and Surveillance. (2020, February 11). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  2. Older Adults Risks and Vaccine Information | cdc. (2021). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  3. Verity, R., Okell, L. C., Dorigatti, I., Winskill, P., Whittaker, C., Imai, N., Cuomo-Dannenburg, G., Thompson, H., Walker, P. G. T., Fu, H., Dighe, A., Griffin, J. T., Baguelin, M., Bhatia, S., Boonyasiri, A., Cori, A., Cucunubá, Z., FitzJohn, R., Gaythorpe, K., . . . Ferguson, N. M. (2020). Estimates of the severity of coronavirus disease 2019: a model-based analysis. The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 20(6), 669–677.
  4. COVID-Driven Isolation Can Be Dangerous for Older Adults. (2021). @NCOAging.
  5. Mills, J. P., Kaye, K. S., & Mody, L. (2020). COVID-19 in older adults: clinical, psychosocial, and public health considerations. JCI Insight, 5(10).
  6. Mental Health Among Older Adults Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic. (2021, May 4). National Poll on Healthy Aging.
  7. D’cruz, M., & Banerjee, D. (2020). ‘An invisible human rights crisis’: The marginalization of older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic – An advocacy review. Psychiatry Research, 292, 113369.
  8. 2017 UC Berkeley IGS Study on California Digital Divide. (2017). Internet for All Now.
  9. DigiAGE: Bridging The Digital Divide For Older Rhode Islanders | Office of Healthy Aging. (2022). Rhode Island Office of Healthy Aging.
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The Question of Digital Illiteracy in Older Adults and COVID-19
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