Government should offer elderly lessons in the internet to encourage them to 'discover life online'

Four out of 10 over-65s do not use the internet. The state should offer lessons, report says

Older people should be taught basic internet skills such as using email and Facebook to help them combat loneliness, research published today says.

About four in 10 people aged 65 and over do not have access to the internet at home, the researchers say, while more than five million over-65s have never used the internet.

However, at a cost of £140 for every person not currently online, the Government could get the entire population on to the internet by 2020, according to a paper from the Policy Exchange think tank.

According to academics it would cost £875m to teach the 6.2 million people who lack basic online skills. They argue that a large-scale digital education project would bring dramatic social and economic benefits to Britain.

Eddie Copeland, the author of the report, said: “In an increasingly isolated and fast moving world it is vital that everyone in society is able to use the internet and understand its benefits.

“From alleviating social isolation, bringing together communities, paying bills and now accessing public services, online can improve lives.

“Being able to simply write an email or access a social networking site could provide older people with a way to stay connected to their friends and families, who may live hundreds of miles away.

“Maintaining these important relationships will help an ageing society vulnerable to loneliness and disconnection from a fast moving modern world.”

Public policy experts argue that projects which can help curb loneliness can save the Government money in the long run. With an ageing population and families often living further and further apart, loneliness can be an expensive problem. It is estimated that one in 10 people has visited their GP unnecessarily because they are lonely.

Caroline Abrahams, the charity director at Age UK said: “Loneliness is a huge issue that affects people all year round, with over one million people aged 65-plus in the UK describing themselves as always or often feeling lonely, and two in five say that their TV or pet is now their main form of company.”

“The internet offers older people a range of benefits, including making savings and keeping in touch with loved ones. However regular social contact and support enabling older people to leave the house and socialise within their community is just as important as getting online in helping relieve loneliness.”

Getting older people online could also save government departments and local councils money in reduced numbers of call centre staff. Policy Exchange has calculated that the initial outlay on training people would be offset by savings of around £1.7bn a year as people moved to digital rather than paper-based or telephone transactions.

Andrew Kaye, the head of policy at Independent Age, a charity which offers advice and support to older people and their families, said: “Encouraging and enabling people to go online could be one really useful means of tackling loneliness – but it’s not the only way.

“We mustn’t forget that it’s really important older people still have a choice about how they access public services so they are not only available online. To those without technology skills, a trip to the local post office or real human contact is just as important.

“We are members of the Keep it Posted campaign which wants people to have a choice in how they receive bills and written communication”.

Case study: ‘I call my laptop Fred Astaire’

Veronica Fenn, 75, lives on her own in Putney, west London

The computer to me is just a godsend. I call it Fred Astaire, because I like tapping on it.

“I ask my older friends why they don’t have laptops. I just feel that it’s the way to go.

“I use my computer about three times a day and I’d like to have one of those smartphone watches. Mostly I taught myself and I learnt a bit in the library and at university.

“I email friends to stay in touch. My school now has vibrant school reunions and the internet has helped that happen.

“It is nice to open up your email and say, ‘Oh gosh, that’s my brother in Australia’, or, ‘That’s another friend in Spain’. When my daughter was in Spain with her four children it was wonderful to be able to Skype.”

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