It’s strange to think that for those born after the turn of the century, a life before the internet will be completely unknown, and for those of us who weren’t or still remember the screeching sound of dial up, it’s difficult to imagine a time where you couldn’t pay your bills online, shop at home, or video chat with a relative, or loved one, at the touch of a button.
Internet access has become a basic requirement much like heating or shelter. Within the wider context of global access to the Internet, the United Nations declared in 2016 that “online freedom is a “human right” and one that must be protected. While their focus is on the condemnation of countries that intentionally take away or disrupt its citizens internet access, their reaction demonstrates the importance placed on digital inclusivity.
Yet, there is still a largely ignored demographic in the UK who do not have access to internet services – older people living in retirement or extra care housing.
Why are older people being digitally excluded?
It’s difficult to say exactly why this is. It could be the belief that there simply isn’t the demand for internet services within this demographic, as older people are seen to be less likely to use them. However, this idea is simply unfounded, a recent survey by housing association Anchor found that 64% of its residents listed broadband as an important requirement when selecting a retirement property.
Another factor is cost, many providers have put off becoming an internet service provider, as they believe replacing their infrastructure will mean huge investment.
That being said, we must address this issue if we are to meet the expectations and needs of our older people. In group developments, residents don’t have access to broadband unless they have their own landline. Historically, that decision has been left for residents to decide if they want it, and if they would like to pay for it as a separate service they organise themselves.
The problem is that this becomes a bit piecemeal for the housing providers, as some residents have WiFi and some don’t, so the provider has to facilitate the installation of lines from a multitude of different network providers.
Some housing providers install WiFi for communal areas, but it doesn’t reach residents’ personal living spaces – the place where they are more likely to want to access health and lifestyle services. As the demographic of older people shifts towards a more tech savvy generation, it’s time that a lack of access to the internet became unacceptable.
How can it benefit residents?
Wellbeing, social isolation and loneliness are prominent issues for older people and, housing providers are fully aware of the responsibility they have over the health and happiness for the residents residing at their properties. The impact of ignoring these issues over a long period of time is also well understood from both a resident perspective and the consequent impact this has on our stretched health and care services.
Having access to online services can help to aid interaction with their immediate and wider community, be that events, video chat, or up to date notifications on the bus timetable to visit a friend. There are also great outcomes for housing providers as they bring more of their services online, from enabling residents to access Universal Credit from a laptop or mobile device, to reporting repairs needed, or antisocial behaviour, through a website. Through internet services housing providers can also provide support on the technology services available, providing answers to frequently asked questions, video tutorials and helpdesk support.
One of the other great advantages is that it will open up the possibility of IoT devices and smart home technologies being connected at a property. If everyone is on the same ISP network and there is one point of call, either to the house manager, or the telecare monitoring centre, then this equipment – such as blinds and heating that can be controlled at the touch of a button without having to leave your armchair – can be installed and providers won’t have to come up against different barriers with different modems or ISP providers.
The challenge is that housing providers need to be inclusive. The Government has been widely criticised for its digital by default policy, because not all older people have access to the internet. If housing providers are putting their own services online, they need to ensure everybody has access to them, if they are to avoid the same criticism.
Digital homes are the key to providing inclusive internet access
The key is having a digital infrastructure. Housing providers are starting to take note of the benefits of digital telecare equipment and the possibilities it opens for modern housing and care.
Digital telecare providers are addressing this issue, by turning their equipment into WiFi hotspots. This means that it’s now easier than ever to supply all residents at a residential property with internet.
The equipment will look and operate in the same way, but there will be WiFi output from the hub device. It’s very simple to connect to for the resident, it’s no different to popping into a café. The resident will see the device name in their list of networks on their device, you can log in connecting immediately to the internet.
For housing providers all of the cost of installing and the consequent disruption is taken away, leaving them the advantage of offering every resident in the property the chance to utilise WiFi in their apartment as part of the telecare system. But crucially they also have the option not to use it too – after all inclusion is all about the freedom of choice to participate or not.
Thinking ahead to the next demographic of residents moving into retirement properties, many will have used technology in both their personal and work lives every day, and will expect digital solutions and the internet. It’s vital housing providers plan to meet this modern demand but also address the potential of the internet for today’s residents to improve their health, happiness and wellbeing.