It’s strange to think that for those born after the turn of the century, a life before the Internet will be completely unknown, and for those of us who weren’t or still remember the screeching sound of dial-up connections, it’s difficult to imagine a time where you couldn’t pay your bills online, shop at home, or video chat at the touch of a button.
Internet access has become a basic requirement, much like heating or shelter. Within the wider context of global access to the Internet, the United Nations declared in 2016 that online freedom is a human right and must be protected. While their focus is on the condemnation of countries that intentionally take away or disrupt its citizens’ internet access, their reaction demonstrates the importance placed on digital inclusivity.
Yet there is still a largely ignored demographic in the UK who don’t have access to internet services – older people living in retirement or extra-care housing.
Why are older people digitally excluded?
It’s difficult to say exactly why this is. It could be the belief that there simply isn’t the demand for internet services within this demographic because older people are considered less likely to use them. However, this idea is simply unfounded; a recent survey by Anchor found that 64 per cent of its residents listed broadband as an important requirement when selecting a retirement property.
Another factor is cost, with many housing providers putting off becoming an internet service provider because they believe replacing their infrastructure will require huge investments.
Nevertheless, we must address this issue if we are to meet the expectations and needs of our older people. In group developments, residents don’t have access to broadband unless they have their own landline. Historically, that decision has been left to residents to decide if they want it and to pay for it as a separate service that they’ve organised themselves.
The problem is that this then becomes a rather piecemeal process for housing providers because some residents have wifi and some don’t, so the provider has to facilitate the installation of lines from a plethora of different network providers.
Some housing providers install wifi for communal areas, but it doesn’t reach residents’ personal living spaces – the place where they are more likely to want to access health and lifestyle services. As the demographic of older people shifts towards a more tech-savvy generation, it’s time that a lack of access to the internet became unacceptable.
How can it benefit residents?
Wellbeing, social isolation and loneliness are prominent issues for older people and housing providers are fully aware of the responsibility they have regarding the health and happiness of the residents in their properties. The impact of ignoring these issues over a long period of time is also well understood not only from the residents’ perspective but also the consequent impact these issues have on stretched health and care services.
Having access to online services can help interaction with residents’ immediate and wider community, be that events, video chat, or up to date notifications on the bus timetable to visit a friend. There are also great outcomes for housing providers because they can bring more of their services online, from enabling residents to access universal credit from a laptop or smartphone, to reporting repairs or antisocial behaviour.
One of the other great advantages is that it will open up the possibility of IoT devices and smart home technologies being connected at a property. If everyone is on the same ISP’s network and there is one point of call, either to the house manager or the telecare monitoring centre, then this equipment, such as blinds and heating that can be controlled at the touch of a button without having to leave your armchair, can be installed and housing providers won’t face barriers from dealing with multiple wifi routers or ISPs.
The challenge is that housing providers need to be inclusive. The government has been widely criticised for its ‘digital by default’ policy because not all older people have access to the internet. If housing providers are putting their own services online, they need to ensure everybody has access to them if they are to avoid the same criticism.
How can it help housing providers?
Many housing providers are embracing the power of online services, from repairs portals and payment gateways to communications and news. Providing these services digitally creates efficiencies, savings, improved customer service and better resident engagement. However, there is an acceptance that not all residents are online, and therefore currently most also provide these services online, by phone and even post.
The true benefits won’t be realised until more residents are using these services online, but with many residents still not having access, housing providers need to drive residents online. Wifi via telecare services is a straightforward, manageable and resident-friendly way to meet this need.
Digital homes are key
The key is having a digital infrastructure. Housing providers are starting to take note of the benefits of digital telecare equipment and the possibilities it opens for modern housing and care.
Digital telecare providers are addressing this issue by turning their equipment into wifi hotspots. This means that it’s now easier than ever to supply all residents at a residential property with internet access.
The equipment will look and operate in the same way, but there will be wifi access from the hub device. It’s very simple for the resident to connect to the wifi-enabled telecare hub – it’s no different to popping into a café and using their customer wifi.
For housing providers, all of the cost and disruption of installing wifi is removed, leaving them the advantage of offering every resident the chance to use wifi in their apartment as part of the telecare system.
Thinking ahead to the next demographic of residents moving into retirement properties, many will have used technology in both their personal and work lives every day, and will expect digital solutions and the internet. It’s vital that housing providers plan to meet this modern demand, but also address the potential of the internet for today’s residents.
Carl Atkey is the CTO of Appello.