The Grey Divide: Isolation of the Elderly During COVID-19
Author: Alexandra Petrisano
Alexandra is an Occupational Health and Safety Professional, with a focus in Workplace Mental Health. She currently works with organizations looking for guidance on how to implement psychologically safe interventions in the workplace, and has a personal passion for promoting psychological wellbeing outside of the workplace as well.
As we approach the two year mark of COVID-19, it is no surprise that living through a pandemic has had an impact on psychological wellbeing worldwide. Heightened restrictions, social isolation from families and friends and fear of contracting the virus are all responsible for this negative shift. An online survey conducted by the Mental Health Research of Canada showed that self-reported levels of anxiety, depression and stress are at their highest – this means that the proportion of Canadians who have reported their level of anxiety or depression as high has increased by 70% since the height of COVID’s first wave. This has been particularly impactful on the psychological health of the elderly, as they have been a disproportionately affected population due to even stricter lockdowns and a higher threat of illness. Prior studies have reported that even before this global pandemic, the elderly population had relatively high rates of depressive symptoms, and this has only been amplified by all of the implications of being labelled a high risk population.
Physical distancing has been the longest standing preventative measure to contracting the virus, and in order to address the social and psychological effects of having to remain separated, the world has leaned greatly on technology. Digital alternatives to movie nights, birthday parties, and family gatherings have become the norm, but an age based digital divide – or grey divide – has left the elderly unable to stay connected as easily as younger generations. Elderly individuals living alone also reported that in-person contact was necessary to maintain positive emotions, and in contrast, phone contact was associated with higher levels of negative affect and was not a satisfactory replacement.
the proportion of Canadians who have reported their level of anxiety or depression as high has increased by 70% since the height of COVID’s first wave.
Image retrieved from Pexels
So, what do we do when the population who requires the most help is using digital solutions the least, and how do we address this grey divide? A recent study showed that the two main barriers to elderly populations using technology are low motivation to access and a general skills deficit. This means that the elderly either do not know how to use technology, or believe that the effort it would take to learn does not outweigh the benefit of knowing how. This would mean that in order to get the elderly on board with digital solutions to isolation, it would be necessary to not only increase their skills, but also increase their motivation to want to increase their skills in the first place.
On a community level, this would mean implementing skills and information based training and programs to increase digital literacy and an understanding of the benefits technology can offer. This can include information campaigns on the day-to-day benefits of technology, increased access to affordable technology, and improving overall digital skills. Prior studies have shown that programs aimed at increasing digital skills for older individuals can have long-term positive effects on their digital ability.
two main barriers to elderly populations using technology are low motivation to access and a general skills deficit.
On a software development level, this would mean mindful and accessible construction of digital solutions, keeping in mind elements such as simple user interfaces and navigation, compatibility to more outdated software, and a clear benefit to the user. Studies have shown that programs and applications developed with the elderly in mind can result in a great improvement in confidence and interest in using technology moving forward.
Hello Jack can be a powerful tool to help address the grey divide both in its design and purpose. The interface will have to be designed with usability and accessibility in mind, and the space for knowledge transfer that will be created can easily include internet literacy and skill-building topics. It can be an accessible environment for elderly people looking to connect, share and learn and form meaningful connections along the way.
Our time apart during COVID-19 has created an opportunity for many exciting digital solutions for combating isolation and loneliness. However, the elderly population have struggled to reap the same benefits as younger groups and continue to be some of the most isolated population. In order to combat these psychological effects, particular attention should be given to increasing their ability and perceived benefit to participate in digital solutions. If successful, this will strengthen their support system, resiliency and overall psychological wellbeing through COVID-19 and beyond.