The Digital Divide

by Amena Imran, FCO Health Policy Research Analyst

COVID-19 has highlighted how important it is to be technologically literate and have access to digital technologies as much of everyday life has gone virtual. As long-term care home visitations became in place, many residents were limited in engaging with their families and having personal contact. Measures were and still are put in place for older adults to isolate, maintain physical distancing and reduce contact with others. As many others picked up technology in an instant, easily switched their workplaces to remote, and could organize video calls with their loved ones, many older adults were left in the dark due to limited knowledge and access to technology.

This is known as the “digital divide”, a term coined in the mid-90s to highlight digital inequalities in accessing digital technologies and information. This includes smartphones, computers, reliable internet services, and affordable technologies. In today’s world, it is necessary to have access to technology in order to fully participate in society. Technology makes it easier to communicate with loved ones, find information, access telehealth and other essential services.

Studies have shown that some older adults may feel anxious or nervous to use technology due to not being familiar with it. Another study found that older adults who had access and regularly used technology as a form of communication felt more socially included, connected, and felt less lonely and isolated in comparison to older adults who rarely used technology.

Older adults in long-term care homes may feel socially excluded due to lacking the necessary skills and equipment to stay connected with others. As visitation restrictions were implemented, digital solutions such as Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom became a method to see their loved ones. Residents may also have physical or cognitive limitations that make access to technology harder without assistance, which makes them depend on staff to schedule meetings with their families.

Given the current pandemic highlighting the importance of technology in society for all age groups; digital solutions to support the social inclusion of residents in long-term care homes must be implemented to narrow the digital divide. Recommendations to the sector, long-term care homes, and family members to promote the positive use of technology include:

  1. Education and support for the use of technology to residents, staff and family members
  2. Implement research projects, public policies, and funding to support long-term care homes to build adequate infrastructure and access to digital technologies
  3. Opportunities for long-term care residents to build technical skills and training in order to build knowledge and confidence when using technology independently

The use of technology can be challenging if older adults lack access and skills, and its use is a process that must be continually supported in order to be successful.

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