This year’s World Telecommunication and Information Society Day, an annual event led by the International Telecommunications Union, focuses on the theme of ‘Digital technologies for older persons and healthy ageing’. This is a good occasion to reflect on some of the lessons and ways to maximise the impacts of library ICT-based services and initiatives aiming to help build an age-friendly and age-responsive environment.
Ensuring a meaningful and equal participation in the digital society by older persons is a pressing priority – particularly in light of global population trends around ageing. As the World Population Prospects 2019 pointed out, people over 65 are the fastest-growing age group in the world – and are expected to make up one-sixth of the global population by 2050. This highlights the urgency of building a digital environment which is designed and well-suited to meet their information needs and support their wellbeing, rather than retrofitting existing solutions.
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a stark illustration of both the potential of ICTs for this age group, and the unique difficulties faced, and which must be kept in mind. As panellists in an opening session of this year’s dedicated WSIS Forum track pointed out, the past 2 years have seen an accelerated uptake of digital services and resources by older persons, spurred on by a growing appreciation of their value proposition. On the other hand, many in this age group remain digitally excluded, struggle with loneliness and social isolation, evolving health risks and needs.
Today’s event also comes after the end of the first year of the UN Decade of Healthy Ageing. From telehealth to assistive technologies to lifelong learning, ICTs are a key element for delivery on the goals of this Decade. This is a good occasion to take stock of some of the insights, questions and lessons these policy dialogues can already offer – to help inform libraries’ continued work to meet the needs of their senior users.
Breaking the stereotypes
Ageism – from stereotypes, prejudices and a failure to take account of older people when designing products, all the way to outright discrimination – is an incredibly widespread problem. Earlier research estimated that 50% of the global population held moderately or highly ageist beliefs. Much like in other areas, this can significantly impact older persons’ interactions with ICTs – as a matter of self-confidence, trust, or feeling like this simply “isn’t something for me”, even dissuading them from engaging with tech.
While there cannot be a single solution to an issue as complex as this, some measures libraries are taking can come a long way to gently challenge such beliefs. As a study based on an Ontario library digital literacy training for seniors illustrates, the library can be really effective in creating a safe space for tech learning and exploration for older users. This can help with facing their own fears and anxieties around breaking a device or making a mistake, boosting their self-confidence and comfort with tech – including through supportive relationships with the instructor and fellow learners. Perceptions of comfort and safety of a library digital skills training can therefore be really valuable in helping bypass ageist beliefs, whether societal or even internalised.
A different approach to learning
A related argument is that digital skills training may not be optimal when simply replicated for different target age groups, without sensitivity to their unique learning needs. For older users, this can manifest in different ways: exclusionary technical language, generation-specific tech terminology, or even the (in)ability of a younger instructor to fully identify to a perspective of an older learner, their tech needs, and the ways they approach learning.
When outlining these considerations, one of the speakers at the WSIS session brought up the term androgogy, emphasising the differences between how children and young adults and older persons learn and acquire knowledge.
For the countless libraries offering learning opportunities tailored for seniors (and adult learners), it is of course immensely valuable to keep track of the latest insights and findings in this field. In the meantime, the idea that peers from similar age groups may be better-positioned to understand each other’s learning approaches and tech skill needs is of course not new to libraries.
This reflects the thinking behind such initiatives as, for example, the Cambridgeshire Libraries’ “Tea and Tablets”. As a follow up to a more formal course on using tablets, this social hour format let participants in their 70s and 80s regularly meet up and exchange tips and experiences amongst each other as they continue to explore ICTs.
At the same time, another key point – as self-evident as it is crucial to remember – is that, as any other age cohort, ‘seniors’ cannot and should not be viewed as a monolithic group. Gender and geographic location are just a few of the factors shaping the ways people experience their senior years – and digital inclusion solutions should reflect this diversity.
There are of course great examples of this from the library field. In New South Wales, the Tech Savvy Seniors programme for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) older Australians employed bilingual trainers, language guides and training materials adapted to be culturally and linguistically suitable for 9 languages apart from English.
Seniors as co-creators and drivers of innovation, not simply users
In the digital ecosystem, agency is a very pertinent question – and another point which has been raised in this policy discussion focuses on the agency of seniors in particular. To properly meet the needs of older users, technology should not be retrofitted but designed with matters such as accessibility in mind – and, of course, one of the best ways to do so is designing and co-creating tech solutions directly in consultation with older people themselves.
This can be particularly relevant for discussions around emerging and transformative tech such as AI, and robotics. While there is a lot of excitement for their potential for long-term and integrated care, it is important to make sure that seniors are not just passive users of such tech, but active drivers of innovation.
This can be seen in evolving library services as well. Advanced digital skills learning opportunities and “tech petting zoos” may not be new to libraries, but their value for senior users may be particularly relevant here. In Singapore, for example, the National Library Board’s approach to digital upskilling for older users is multifaceted, encompassing digital skills for both life and work. It includes, inter alia, deep-dive examinations of emerging and advances in tech like AI and cloud computing, as well as hands-on workshops where learners unleash their creativity in such fields as coding and 3D printing. All of these offers have proved very popular with their target audiences, supporting seniors’ engagement with tech innovation.
Finally, it is always worth taking a step back and reflecting on the ways ICTs help build all-encompassing age-friendly environments. The latter is one of the main goals of the Healthy Ageing Decade, focusing on the full range of factors influencing the well-being and quality-of-life for people as they age: continued growth and development, health, safety, participation, autonomy.
The World Health Organisation’s Age Friendly World platform includes a database of age-responsive practices and initiatives taking place on local and community levels. From Chile to Poland to Japan, it contains references to the many ways libraries, too, help build an age-friendly environment in different areas – such as culture, digital inclusion, combating isolation, or even civic engagement.
ICTs, of course, play a key role in some of these library initiatives: from free audiobooks delivered for seniors with disabilities to different forms of digital literacy upskilling – e.g. walk-in, pre-booked one-on-one consultations, or formal classes.
All in all, ICTs can be a powerful tool for building an empowering age-friendly environment for all. However, digital inclusion, equitable access to information and services, age-responsive tech design and tailored ICT-based services are all necessary to make this environment work for all seniors.
Libraries around the world are already actively introducing services and initiatives leveraging ICTs to meet the needs of their older community members – and we look forward to seeing their further engagement with overarching and comprehensive strategies for healthy ageing and quality of life!