As highlighted in my first blog of this series, senior Victorians’ experiences of the pandemic have been varied and diverse.
Since hearing from almost 5000 Victorians to develop the Ageing well in a changing world report, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has changed the way we live and connect. During my listening tour talking to senior Victorians virtually and in-person over the past six months, access to information and technology was highlighted by many as keys to connection, health and wellbeing.
Navigating new technology
Access to technology has become increasingly important for many older adults during the pandemic. Over the past 18-months, the ‘digital divide’ between people with or without access to online communication and technology has become more apparent and important than ever before.
The pandemic pushed many older adults to consider using technology in areas of their lives they had not considered before and to build new skills quickly. Many organisations including local councils, U3As, Men’s Sheds, neighbourhood houses and multicultural seniors groups provided active support including training.
Recent research by the Australian Communications and Media Authority in 2021 shows older adults are increasingly using mobile devices to access the internet and apps. More than three-quarters of senior Australians access the internet via their mobile phone and over 50 per cent use apps to communicate. During the pandemic, technology access and skills have enabled many seniors to socialise with family, friends and groups and to access essential care and supplies through telehealth and online shopping. For some people, attending meetings and appointments online or over the phone is easier and more accessible; there’s no need to travel, no waiting room, it’s more comfortable and can be more inclusive. “I always had to sit in the front row of meetings because I am hard of hearing. Now over Zoom, I can hear better and see everyone else,” one person said.
However, many senior Victorians also shared their concerns about technology access and affordability. According to the 2020 Digital Inclusion Index, older Australians are the least digitally included age group across the measures of access, affordability and digital ability. The cost of a computer, mobile phone and internet access, as well as a lack of skills or confidence in using technology, prevents many older adults from accessing essential information, services and social opportunities. Some older adults experienced distress in being forced online or were worried about online scams. The closure of libraries and other shared facilities during restrictions also limited people’s access to computers, the internet and face-to-face assistance. Many organisations tried initiatives such as ‘telephone trees’ to try to remain in contact with their members or participants.
Staying well and informed
Overall, the older adults I spoke to have found it challenging to maintain their health and wellbeing during the pandemic. While initiatives like telehealth were welcomed, particularly those who would usually need to travel long distances to see a specialist, the older adults and support services I spoke to shared concerns about those who may have delayed seeking help or who whose health may have deteriorated. Some physical activities and therapies were able to be delivered remotely, however the loss of incidental exercise from day-to-day activities and participation in exercise classes may have impacted the strength and mobility of some older adults.
Misinformation and confusion about COVID-19 public health settings and vaccines was also front of mind for the senior Victorians I spoke to. Uncertainties about health advice, negative messages, and varying levels of trust in government messages have impacted the confidence of older adults during the pandemic, particularly in relation to vaccinations. Older adults in some areas have also had difficulties accessing a vaccine.
An important part of my role as the Commissioner for Senior Victorians is to elevate the voices of seniors and provide advice and advocacy to the Victorian Government on issues relevant to senior Victorians. The insights from the listening tour will be shared with the Victorian Government and Senior Victorians Advisory Group and will guide our collective efforts to support Victorians to age well.
I would like to thank the many individuals, groups and organisations who shared their experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic during my listening tour, and I look forward to hearing from more seniors over the coming months as my listening tour continues.
Learn more about ‘Ageing well in a changing world’.
Commissioner for Senior Victorians
Gerard Mansour is a passionate advocate for the rights and needs of older Victorians, with more than 25 years’ experience working in the aged and wider community service sectors. He has contributed significantly to policy development and implementation of services assisting senior Victorians.