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Digital technologies for older people and healthy aging.

Digital technologies for older people and healthy aging.

By Ahmed Khaouja (*)

Every year on May 17, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a specialized institution of the United Nations (UN), celebrates World Telecommunications and Information Society Day.

The theme for this year 2022 is entitled “Digital technologies at the service of the elderly and healthy aging”.

The objective of choosing this theme is to raise awareness in all UN member countries on the importance of dedicating digital technologies to the service of the elderly. The goal is definitely to contribute to their healthy aging.

Digital transformation comes from disruptive innovation:

It should be noted that digital transformation is a new paradigm resulting from disruptive innovation, which consists of revolutionizing the way of offering services or selling products through the Internet. As for digital health, which also concerns our seniors, it is the set of information and communication technologies applied to all activities related to health. Digital technology facilitates remote communication with the elderly, in particular by allowing them better medical follow-up, as well as the opportunity to maintain social and family ties.

The situation of digital use by the elderly differs between developed and developing countries:

In developed countries, older people use new technologies relatively more. This is due to two main reasons: on the one hand, the digital in these countries is more advanced. On the other hand, illiteracy is less present there, both on the computer and linguistic levels.

Thus, digital technology in developed countries allows, among other things, an elderly person to find out about the products and services they need or to consult various useful websites. The services offered by digital networks also allow the person to maintain his social ties with his family and friends. Generally, older people who use the Internet on a daily basis feel socially integrated and less isolated. Telecommunications also help the elderly to acquire a certain autonomy, facilitating for example a better follow-up of their health. Nevertheless, and given that in these developed countries life expectancy is relatively higher, the disability rate increases as the person ages.

 By crossing the threshold of 80 years, for example, half of Spaniards begin to have problems carrying out their daily activities, including those relating to digital access. This situation was illustrated at the end of January 2022, when the 78-year-old retiree Carlos San Juan, overwhelmed by the difficulties in accessing his accounts via digital applications, launched a petition against the “dehumanization” of banks with this slogan: “I may be old, but I’m not stupid!”. These problems are even more critical when people are illiterate, as is the case of Morocco. In France, according to a French study carried out by the CSA Institute (Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel) and the association of “Petits Frères des Pauvres” (Which can be translated as “Little brothers of poors”), 4 million people aged over 60 never use the Internet, i.e. 27% of this age group. 14% of 60-70 year olds are also in a situation of digital exclusion. This exclusion particularly affects people over 80 – more than 1.7 million people – and people with an income of less than 1,000 euros. This digital exclusion is an aggravating factor of social isolation and disease. This social isolation has increased with the Covid-19 pandemic among the elderly. The association Petits Frères des Pauvres tried to attracts attention in a report, published Thursday, September 30, 2021. The report warns of the risk of giving up care by these old people, and that may results from this loneliness. “The better the social relations, and especially the family ones, the lower the risk of foregoing care”, the association indicates, referring to a study by the department of Research, Studies, Evaluation and statistics in France, published in July 2021 which focused on the renunciation of care. The proportion of seniors who say they are deprived of contact with their family and friends has increased by 122% between 2017 and 2021. The study of the Petits Frères des Pauvres is based on a survey carried out from April 6 to 20, 2021 by the CSA Institute Research with 1,503 people aged 60 who live 99% at home. This rupture partly explained by the difficulties of the over 65s to use digital tools, at a time when more and more procedures are carried out this way.

Concerning developing countries, they started also to be affected by the aging of their population. In this sense, let us cite Turkey as an example. This country will have to face, in the near future, an increase in its elderly population. In this country, it is people over 65s who are experiencing the fastest demographic expansion at the national level. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, the elderly population, which numbered 6,651,503 individuals (8.3%) in 2016, increased to more than 9% in 2020. Moreover, according to this same report, it is estimated that in 2023 , the proportion of the elderly population represents 21% of the total Turkish population. This growing population faces barriers that prevent them from adapting to the needs of the information society and digital technology. Moreover, the statistical references of Internet use according to the different age categories allow us to predict this digital divide: 84.3% of young people aged 16 to 24 say they have used a computer or the Internet in last 3 months, compared to only 8.8% of the population aged 65 and over. Taking into account the difficulties of integrating the elderly population into the active use of the Internet, the work aims to highlight the risk to neglect an important part of the population in the information society.

In Morocco, people aged 60 and over (2.4 million people) would represent 12% of the national population in 2021. According to the HCP (the High Commission for Planning), this share should reach 15.4% and count 5.8 million individuals over 60 years of age in 2030. According to the report of economic, social and environmental council of Morocco (2015), it has been revealed that elderly people are caracterized by low capacities in term of health, education, and socio-economic level.

Indeed, more than 7/10 are illiterate, most have a very low income, more than half suffer from at least one chronic disease and do not have access to care, and almost a third of them are in a situation of dependency. Social and medical coverage only benefits to 1/5 of the elderly. The Moroccan elderly population is characterized by a high proportion of illiterate people (72%).

This rate is higher in rural areas (86%) than in urban areas (62%). All these problems contribute to further complicate access to digital technology for these elderly people.

Older people and digital platforms:

The use of social networks is spreading globally in all age groups. But not enough among the elderly, even if these social networks often allow them to show to their families that they are still healthy and active. However, despite the usefulness of these social networks, very few older people use them globally. According to the edition of French magazine ‘Micro pratique’ of January 2022, only 8% of people over the age of 65 use Facebook out of the 2.9 billion users. Of Instagram’s 4.2 billion likes, only 1.2% are old men and 0.9% are older women.

ITU and E-health:

The ITU contributes to the achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the UN for 2030 and in particular to the following objective: to put digital technologies at the service of the health and well-being of all citizens of the world, including the elderly. The ITU statement on this is: “Direct patient interaction, health informatics and telemedicine can be enhanced through better connectivity. The Digital Health Partnership for Africa, launched in 2017 by ITU, and the World Health Organization (WHO), led a campaign to build leadership capacity in digital health for the benefit of more than 15 countries in Africa. The “Mobility is Health” initiative, another collaborative project of ITU and WHO, aims to carry out projects in several countries in the field of mobile health and to maintain a center for knowledge and innovation in the field of mobile health in Europe (mhealth-hub.org). Current and future ITU standards for multimedia systems, developed in collaboration with other organizations, will support the widespread deployment of e-health applications, particularly in the area of ​​telemedicine and remote medical imaging.”.

Let us remind the theme set by the ITU for the year 2020 was “ICTs at the service of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)”.

The seven recommendations on “digital technologies for older people and healthy ageing”:

1- Adequate measures are necessary to be taken in all countries in order to facilitate digital life also for the elderly. In Sweden, a country where digital technology is largely replacing the use of cash, a decision was taken via the adoption of a law to oblige merchants to temporarily accept cash at the request of the elderly, who still can’t get accustomed to the use of new technologies in this area. As a reminder, in Sweden only 2% of payments are currently made in cash, especially with the occurrence of Covid-19 pandemic.

2- Encourage the elderly to use digital technology through appropriate measures, for example by making it easier for them to deliver orders made on the internet on days and at times that suit them.

3- Provide training on digital for those who want it.

4- Put in place measures to protect the elderly against bad business practices.

5- Provide local and trustworthy assistance to elderly people.

6- Launch awareness-raising at the level of each country to make life easier for the elderly, particularly via digital technology.

7- Digital trust (protection of personal data and cybersecurity) must also be guaranteed to the elderly.

(*)  Ahmed Khaouja, telecom engineer, director of PTT Morocco and ITU expert.

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