Charity warns that move to online services could deter older people from seeking support
A leading charity for old people has warned that many are struggling to access vital services, and could be put off seeking support, because of the increasing emphasis on digital channels.
Age UK has made the assertion in its Later life in the digital world report, which says pressure to claim housing benefit online in many areas is erecting a barrier in the way of support.
It also highlights the fact that HM Revenue & Customs’ Marriage Allowance, which makes it possible for people to transfer unused personal tax allowance to their partner, was available only as an online service when launched in April. Although a telephone option is now available it has been given little publicity, the report says.
Other services for which it says there are difficulties in obtaining them offline from some sources include the Blue Badge scheme for disabled parking and the issue of European Health Insurance Cards.
The report cites research from communications regulator Ofcom showing that 61% of people aged 75 and over have never used the internet. The figure rises to almost 80% for people in the lower socio-economic groups.
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said: “It’s bad enough that it is so hard to compare utility providers if you aren’t online, but it would be even worse if similar barriers arose for older people in terms of obtaining state benefits and other support.
“Amidst the government drive towards ‘digital by default’, the needs of older people who are not online and who probably never will be must be taken fully into account.
“In order to ensure that those who do not use the internet are not disadvantaged by digital transformation in the public and private sectors, we need three complementary approaches: greater support from government and the industry to increase digital inclusion; great user-friendly technology and design; and appropriate alternative access for people who are not online.”
The Local Government Association responded that councils design services to be accessed through a range of means, including telephone and face-to-face, and make efforts to support internet access through providing free Wi-Fi in libraries and establishing digital champion networks.
Its community wellbeing spokesperson, Councillor Izzi Seccombe, said: “We recognise that not all residents have access to broadband or Wi-Fi and that some council services require over the phone or face-to-face contact. This report is a valuable reminder of how important it is that everyone has the choice of contacting their council in a way they feel comfortable.
"Through the Care Act, councils have a duty to ensure that information and advice on care and support is accessible and in proportion to people's needs, and many local authorities are working with residents and voluntary groups in the community to assist people who want to use new technology available. With rising demand, growing costs and continued funding pressures it is vital that councils are properly funded for this."
Picture: Cotchobee, CC 3.0 through Wikimedia