Foto: Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

‘Invest now in digital skills for the elderly’

Omayra Mac Donald8 April 2020

The far-reaching government measures for the coronavirus outbreak – such as not shaking hands and keeping at a distance of one and a half metres from each other – are making personal contact very difficult at the moment. The internet and social media offer an alternative, but for many elderly people this is not always a viable option, and this makes them vulnerable. Theo van Tilburg, sociologist at the VU Amsterdam, therefore has the following advice: ‘Invest now in digital skills for the elderly.’

What is the most noteworthy development among the elderly during the corona crisis?
Everybody now realises – and this goes for us all, not just the elderly – how much social contact we have during the day. Not all forms of contact are equally important, but a whole range of actions and activities are now no longer possible. For the elderly – especially the very elderly – this means that there are no longer many activities available to them. What little they could do is now also out of bounds. Many people live alone in their old age, and home care has stopped in a lot of places. There is a good chance that elderly people will become completely isolated as a result. As they often don’t have digital skills to fall back on to ease this isolation, this group is particularly vulnerable.

Are internet skills among the elderly really so inadequate?
In the Netherlands, around 90% of the elderly use the internet, but the question is: how effectively do they actually use it? For example, my mother-in-law can read an e-mail. She can also sometimes reply to an e-mail, but that’s it. Using Skype or something similar presents considerable problems, while this is the closest thing we have to face-to-face contact. This makes it obvious how ill-prepared elderly people are for a situation like this. You could say that we’ve invested too little in increasing the access of the elderly to these options.

"However, the quality of the contact is also important."

Does this mean that loneliness among the elderly is an even greater issue?
A lack of social contact cannot be equated with loneliness. The relationship between the two is rather more complicated. Loneliness is the feeling that you have little social contact, or that your contact with others is not good. You compare this with the expectations. Elderly people generally understand why children and grandchildren are visiting less these days, so their expectations are lower. Whether this leads to more loneliness is hard to say in the short term – it’s difficult to predict. The basic expectation is that people will feel lonelier when they have less contact with others. However, the quality of the contact is also important. The few contacts you do have may become stronger during these times, which may lead to deeper conversations and thus reduce loneliness.

This situation is probably going to be too short-lived to make any kind of definitive statement about it...
Yes, fortunately it is a unique, short-term situation, and we also have no data. The situation is somewhat different for the elderly in nursing homes, which are now closed to visits. These elderly people have even fewer alternatives, and I’d be inclined to say that they may feel more abandoned than others. I’m hesitant to make pronouncements about other, independent elderly people.

"If a 95-year-old can learn to make a video call, that’s a whole new experience in itself, that adds colour to their day."

How can these elderly people stay in touch with their loved ones?
What I can suggest – and this requires a little more time and proximity – is that elderly people receive help in maintaining digital contact with others. It would be great if nursing home staff could encourage and facilitate this. I suspect, however, that this doesn’t happen very often. It’s also about the opportunity to do something new again. If a 95-year-old can learn to make a video call, that’s a whole new experience in itself, that adds colour to their day. I think that carers could definitely go the extra mile in facilitating this.

How can we deal with the loneliness that is emerging at the moment?
That’s a complicated question. A lot of people think that it’s only about increasing opportunities for contact, but it’s actually about much more than that. It’s not hard to organise something for the elderly, but we know that a lot of separate activities don’t do much to alleviate real loneliness. We need to take a more comprehensive approach. Most people underestimate the seriousness of the problem.

"You can only achieve this if you work with people in a long-term, in-depth way. That’s essential."

What advice would you give?
Undertake activities that increase the sense of belonging among the elderly. You can only achieve this if you work with people in a long-term, in-depth way. That’s essential. You can do something good without it necessarily solving the loneliness. And then we’re too quick to think: ‘Oh, I’ve done my bit in the battle against loneliness.’ My response is: I suspect that’s not the case. More needs to be done.

Read the earlier published interview "House-bound no more: elderly less lonely" with Theo van Tilburg in VU Magazine.