LOCAL OFF: Making older adults comfortable with technology

Living in a technology-dependent world means we all want to stay connected, regardless of age. And the COVID-19 pandemic is a major catalyst for increasing our technological dependence.

It’s become normal to do the weekly online grocery store, attend doctor’s appointments or work via Zoom and FaceTime family and friends. But the truth is, not everyone is lucky enough to have access to the technological tools or skills to operate in our online world — some of the most affected by this are older adults.

This magnifies the pandemic for them, especially in terms of isolation. Older adults are left without the primary resource that keeps many of us connected — technology.

But that’s not all the pandemic has opened up to older adults. Most of them also experience, or are vulnerable to, homelessness. Older adults have been one of the groups most at risk for housing insecurity during the pandemic. And one of the biggest barriers to housing, is low socioeconomic status.

Our technology reliance has created new challenges for older adults, and helped reinforce pre-existing ones, such as navigating online platforms to secure housing. Older adults face housing barriers due to a lack of technological and educational resources on how to use them; there is a clear need to empower them to become digital citizens.
Finding housing in an internet-dependent world

Overall, older adults are often excluded from internet use because they lack devices and connectivity, or are inexperienced in using them. So when looking for a place to live, they are often left behind.

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A decade ago, it was possible to walk around, sift through newspapers, bulletin boards, and find apartments to rent, but this is becoming increasingly rare. The platforms themselves — like Kijiji, PadMapper, and Facebook Marketplace — weren’t built with older adults in mind; meaning that the ability to navigate and access these resources makes it even more difficult for them to find a place to live. Apart from having to search through unknown platforms, they are also faced with finding apartments on a limited budget.
Imagine you didn’t know there was a housing website. Or know how to navigate online ads. Or have a device to access the internet. You are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to accessing housing.

In North America “a large part of the rental housing market has moved online … more tenants in urban areas find their homes today through sites like Craigslist than through any other information channel.” This means that most rental properties can be accessed via online platforms. Older adults who are not part of this digital world have limited opportunities to find a place to live.

We don’t want to suggest that finding an apartment is impossible, but if you’re an older adult who lacks tech and digital literacy resources, it might feel overwhelming.
Making technology more accessible

How can we get ahead in this digital world, when so much is left behind? We should at least make the technology accessible, so the choice is up to the user.

When it comes to older adults, having the freedom to choose their engagement with technology can provide independence and autonomy. When the decision is in their hands, their quality of life tends to improve, especially regarding social isolation.

While older adults are more susceptible to phishing and fraud and may have difficulty recognizing fake housing ads, having educational support and resources can promote the adoption of a sober and cautious attitude online, promote the use of trusted websites and avoid disclosing personal information such as SIN and credit card information. This can actively allow older adults to feel more comfortable and confident online.
We are part of the Aging in the Right Place Project (AIRP) which looks at the causes of homelessness for older adults to evaluate current promising practices, such as temporary housing that supports older adults at risk of homelessness.

An integral part of the project is to not only be in close contact with people working to support this population, but also with parents experiencing homelessness themselves. In our clients’ initial interviews with those living in temporary housing, we are often told how valuable technology is when looking for stable housing.

Technology can improve the quality of life
As a society, we assume that older adults are not interested in various technologies, not because they resist it, but because today’s technology was not created for them. Failing to include older adults as technology users further perpetuates the social, informational, and digital isolation they experience.

This leaves very few opportunities for them to access education and awareness. Existing opportunities for learning are often found at school or at work — which are environments that older adults no longer frequent.

Technology can improve the quality of life of the elderly by providing convenience, inclusion, and comfort by making important things, such as finding a place to live, more accessible.

It is time for us to take advantage of existing educational resources and initiatives and reach out to those who are left behind. Let’s empower the elderly to become digital citizens.

As digital citizens, they will have more opportunities to secure housing and tools to prevent homelessness. This support will not only give them a sense of engagement in a technologically dependent world, it will also give them a sense of belonging and inclusion in today’s society.

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