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NZ's aged care population held back by digital divide

26 Mar 2019

The digital divide is well and truly present amongst New Zealand’s older population, particularly for those who live in residential aged care.

A new study by AUT University has found that although senior citizens a re digitally connected, not much is known about how that connectivity changes once they enter aged care. This is because reports and surveys often neglect to mention aged care respondents.

“Despite the spread of the internet, age-related gaps in digital engagement still exist. A group that is particularly vulnerable to being excluded are those living in aged care environments,” comments AUT social psychologist Dr Wendy Wrapson.

Older people who move into aged care or retirement villages can be affected by lower levels of social connectedness, because they can’t always travel to maintain relationships.

Low levels of social connectedness are related to poor health outcomes and higher mortality risks, together with a significant reduction in quality of life.

Wrapson set explored these gaps in a study titled The Social Connectedness of Older People in Residential Aged Communities.

The study interviewed close family and friends of those who live in an aged care facility or retirement village. The respondents provided data on 80 aged care residents in Auckland.

Wrapson says family and friends play an important role in helping residents to use digital technologies.

“It is often a family member who purchases the device, arranges the wi-fi connection and sets up any software. Even if the resident doesn’t use technology themselves, family and friends will bring their own devices to share photos and videos.”

Technology is also used to supplement social contact rather than replace it. Technology also did not impede the frequency of visits, according to those interviewed.

Aged care facilities are slow to provide WiFi access for residents, and interviewees said they would like to see aged care operators provide more support.

“Some of the newer facilities are starting to cater for the changing communication needs of their residents. Things are moving in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go before computer access is available to everyone. This deficit is particularly concerning for residents who don’t have family and friends to support their technology use, and who risk being digitally excluded,” says Dr Wrapson.

The study also found that there is opportunity for device manufacturers to meet the needs of the older demographic, as respondents found it hard to find devices suitable for those with failing eyesight and arthritic hands.

“Digital engagement in later life might not always be preferred or possible, but it can enhance the wellbeing of older people through more frequent social interactions and improved access to information,” says Dr Wrapson.

InternetNZ chief Jordan Carter says the research stands out.

“It addresses a digitally disadvantaged group and presented an opportunity to investigate the value of digital engagement for older people.”

InternetNZ provides NZ$800,000 of funding each year, through grants and partnerships, to aid the development of the internet in New Zealand.

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