“You feel like a faceless non-entity, it feels horrible.”  

Re-engage advisory group member, Oct 2022

Socially isolated older people over the age of 75 are amongst some of the most excluded in society. For many, social exclusion is only part of a wider experience of isolation. Of the 8,300 older people we support, 76% have long-term health conditions, 76% are widowed and 95% live alone. These factors place people at a far greater risk not only of social exclusion, but also of digital exclusion.

Living alone and only rarely leaving your home due to long-term conditions, fear, low income or lack of transport, can make the internet a potential way to find that missing human connection. However, our 2021 research, found that approximately half (51%) of isolated over 75s were not online – significantly higher than the national average, and higher than the general population of over 75s.

The Challenges of Getting Online

Getting online is both a practical consideration and a big psychological hurdle. Few of the older people we heard from have done this by themselves, and most have needed support. Many older people are fearful of scams and fraud, and this can limit internet use as they avoid doing certain activities like online banking or shopping.  For some, fear has prevented them from getting online at all. Lack of confidence is a common barrier, including fear of the technology itself, and worries about learning and getting stuck can severely limit what people do or attempt to do. In an increasingly digital world, where even health information is moving online, many older people feel left behind.

“There are many people who do not have access to the internet. We are dismissed, ignored, excluded. Since the pandemic, the situation has become worse.”

Research Participant, 2021

Older people, particularly those living alone on fixed low incomes, also face being disproportionately affected by the rising cost of living and energy bills. Digital exclusion compounds financial exclusion with a lot of information only available online. If you’re not online, it becomes harder to find out about the best financial products and protection, or ways to save money such as researching the best energy providers.

These multiple exclusions make it very hard for people to participate in society in the way they would like to and compound feelings of loneliness.

“They are excluding people who haven’t got a lot of money, or transport, or a computer.” 

Re-engage advisory group member, Oct 2022

Addressing Social and Digital Exclusion

These exclusions are not only detrimental for the individual, but society too is missing out on the wealth of experience, knowledge and joy older people have to share and contribute. As one of our advisory group told us in October 2022:

“Listen to the older people, the older generation. They’ve got a lot to say but they’re not allowed to say it because it’s too past tense, it’s not with it. When people die you hear about how great they were and all the things they did, and we need to live and enjoy the past while people are still here. It’s a shame they’re going to be lost.”

Providing opportunities for social connection is a crucial step towards addressing not only social but also digital and financial inclusion. Giving people the opportunity to speak in a warm, safe, and caring environment, that is free and accessible, creates a space for sharing worries and experiences, building support networks and giving advice.

“It makes you feel part of society again. You were regarded as a has-been, nobody wants you; now you feel a person again, and that’s lovely. And you enjoy hearing about people’s lives and maybe helping them. It keeps you in touch with the present, and gives you hope for the future. It can be very inspiring.”

Re-engage advisory group member, Oct 2022

Delivering skills training, connectivity, and a device is just part of the solution to reduce digital exclusion. For many older, isolated people, we must also address the issue of social isolation, provide ongoing trusted support, and develop ways to effectively reduce fear and the complex barriers many people face.

What we do at Re-engage

At Re-engage, in our commitment to reducing loneliness, we regularly consult with our advisory group of older people who access our services. Some of the views expressed here are from interviews with members in October 2022.  We will continue to listen to people aged 75+ and explore the ways in which we can address the many facets of exclusion experienced by older people today and in the future.  

If you would like to hear more about this research and the work of Re-engage, Laura Joplin, Head of Impact at Re-engage will be speaking at the Tackling Adult Loneliness Conference on 18th April 2023.

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Around 3.3 million people reported feeling chronically lonely in 2022, according to research from the campaign to end loneliness. Laura Joplin, Head of Impact at Reengage, discusses the challenges digital exclusion poses for adult loneliness and the measures Re-engage have deployed to reduce isolation.

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