Assistive technology is helpful for seniors

Digitization in old ageHow old people network in lockdown

Theater stages are moving to live streams, sports clubs are moving outside, and conferences are moving to the cloud. This year we had to rethink our social interaction in a way that was appropriate to the distance and often shifted it to digital. Not all of it worked right away, in the beginning social life was mainly reduced and many suffered from the emerging loneliness.

Many elderly people in particular were suddenly isolated. More and more senior citizens went online to stay in contact with each other, the laughter of familiar and new faces on the screens lit up the loneliness. The pandemic catapulted forward a development that had been in motion for a long time.

Around forty senior citizens met in November for a Zoom meeting. Since March, the association “Ways out of loneliness” has been organizing the “Smartphone / Tablet Exercise Round” twice a week via the video conference app. Here “Strickeule”, “Honeybee” and others exchange information about camera functions, newly discovered apps or questions. But this time it was a bit strange, the seniors didn't know some of the names. When the username "Hitler" appeared, the situation was clear: someone wanted to crash the meeting.

But the senior citizens were prepared. "First throw everyone out, then leave the meeting," explains Dagmar Hirche, the 63-year-old founder of the Hamburg association: "I trained the seniors from the start that this can happen."

In so-called zoom-bombing, trolls look for open video conferences on the Internet in order to then hijack a presentation and shock it with mostly right-wing extremist or pornographic content. Since Dagmar Hirche had to digitize her club's program at the beginning of the Corona measures, she had regularly informed herself about the associated risks. For reasons of data protection, she had also advised her members to log into Zoom using only their first or nicknames.

There is no trace of displeasure or fear of contact with new technologies with her or her club members. After the unwanted guests had been removed from the meeting and new access data had been sent to all participants by email, they laughed heartily at the absurdity of the situation: “What kind of weirdos there are”. A spectacle that no one could have imagined before 2020.

"Age has an image problem"

Dagmar Hirche founded her association, WadE, in 2007 to actively combat loneliness in old age. There would have been a lot of offerings from old people, but little with them. She wanted to change that. With flash mobs, silent discos, speed dating and parties, the club quickly reached a large audience, won several prizes and Hirche suddenly became a little celebrity.

The managing director of a management consultancy wanted to use the success to enable old people to participate in the digital world and at the same time improve their image. With the project “We silver the net”, WadE has trained over 7,000 senior citizens in the use of tablets and smartphones since 2014. "If you have fun approaching the matter, there is absolutely no shyness among the people," says Hirche. “It's up to us to do it with enthusiasm. There is a lot of laughter. "

However, dealing with digital technologies has long been more than just a pastime. Nowadays, much information is only or mainly available on the Internet, from consultation hours in the doctor's office around the corner to your own account balance. It is often difficult for those who are not digitally connected.

Digital participation in old age

Digital participation in old age has also been a political issue for a long time. In the recently published eighth age report, which the Federal Ministry for Family, Seniors, Women and Youth (BMFSFJ) regularly publishes, digitization is the central topic. The sub-report “Older people and digitization” states: “Having access to the Internet, using digital technologies and being able to deal with them competently is an essential prerequisite for social participation in many areas of everyday life.

The basic requirement for this is the infrastructure: According to a study by the German Center for Aging, almost 90 percent of 60 to 66 year olds have access to the Internet. This proportion shrinks sharply the older the respondents are. In the case of 73 to 78-year-olds, it is only 64 percent, after that less than half. The number becomes even smaller for women or people with a low level of education.

There is seldom internet access in care facilities that are not covered by the age report. Here the prospects are particularly depressing, and the danger of isolation is particularly high. There are no reliable figures on this, but the assessment was shared by all interviewees. A resident of a care facility recently highlighted the dramatic deficiency in a Citizen: Internal Dialog with Angela Merkel.

Meanwhile, some public initiatives want to improve the digital participation of older people: In regional multigenerational houses, for example, small groups are supported with equipment and training. In November 2019, the “Digital Angel” information bus started, which runs through the Federal Republic of Germany. In public places, especially in rural, "structurally weaker" regions, there are introductions to various technologies.

Little flexibility in public offers

Public institutions discontinued many programs without any alternative, that was the case in March as in November. It took the digital angel several weeks to set up a comparable online program. Senior citizens, who otherwise had a lively social exchange in the analogue world, in the theater or in leisure clubs, suddenly found themselves at home alone. Existing disadvantages in terms of participation in society were increased.

Dagmar Hirche wanted to offer her club's program digitally as soon as possible. To do this, she first had to familiarize the participants with the technical basis of video telephony. “No senior knew Zoom,” says Hirche. So in March she and her husband recorded a video behind the camera explaining the program. "On March 25th there were 40 seniors in our meeting and it was totally chaotic, nothing worked and everyone talked at once. But the main thing is that they all had the courage. "

The free daily program has now become part of the daily routine for many senior citizens. There is dancing, sitting yoga, there are readings and concerts. Otherwise you exchange tips and tricks; in the public sessions it almost feels as if each participant has prepared their own questionnaire. Sieglinde asks advice on how to deal with a con man's phone call. Dagmar Hirche gives her tips.

The program is sent to over 2,000 subscribers via a newsletter, and many of the women - who make up around 90 percent of the participants - have never seen each other in the same way. For some, it is the only regular contact they have during Corona times. At Christmas, the digital conference room will remain open at the request of some members. If you don't expect a visit, you can celebrate together online.

A question of barriers

Individual successful projects are touching and make us optimistic, but many club organizers feel that they have been abandoned by the public sector. Public and private offers differ greatly from region to region and are hardly transparent. As early as June, actors therefore called for an overall concept.

It is also difficult to measure who can be reached or reached with the various programs. There are quite a few senior citizens who approach new technologies with full curiosity - but what about those who do not have the prerequisites for it? Here in particular, solutions are needed for low-barrier means of communication, which are particularly widespread among the elderly. First and foremost: the telephone.

One example of this is the Silberdraht hotline, a free 0800 number that makes digital content available over the phone. In the automated service, you can use a menu to listen to the latest local news, play a Beethoven sonata or listen to a podcast. The entire service emerged within a few weeks from a hackathon in March 2020.

The success of the Silver Network service also shows how well the barrier-free telephone is being received. A phone call connects you anonymously with one of the currently around 30 employees and you can talk about anything.

"Some really make this reassurance call," says Elke Schilling, founder of the service. “They say: 'Hello, I've had breakfast now and now I've had this and that before and I wish you a nice day.” And then the same thing again for lunch. It is this loneliness and in this loneliness you make sure that someone is there who is ready to listen to you. "

"Old people have no lobby"

Some callers have to struggle with psychological problems or material worries and fears. But it is often about small, everyday situations that old people need help with. “I had an old lady on the phone the other day, 83, who said to me: 'My daughter has Covid-19 and I am here alone, knows how to help me, but now I should also take a test. I don't know where! '”, Schilling describes a recent conversation. "Then I researched what test stations there were in your city and gave her the phone numbers."

There are situations in which many would turn to the internet. However, those who do not have access to this are massively restricted in their options for obtaining information. The silver net bridges this gap.

According to Schilling, the first lockdown triggered an overwhelming wave of helpfulness. Your association alone received 1,000 applications from volunteers who wanted to start a direct telephone friendship with an elderly person through the association. At the moment the association can no longer accept new applications, the capacities are simply not sufficient for the administrative work. But the call volume rose again noticeably with the second lockdown in autumn.

It fails because of public support. “Old people don't have a lobby,” complains Schilling. For this reason, she and her association launched the silver network congress “Network against loneliness in old age”. Over two days, a good 100 experts, senior citizens and associations from all over Europe met digitally for lectures, workshops and exchanges. Similar initiatives from Switzerland, the Netherlands and Romania were guests. Health Minister Jens Spahn was also there, together with the Vice President of the EU Commission, Dubravka Šuica.

Today Elke Schilling is one of the strongest German voices working for more self-determination in old age. The energetic woman created the lobby for old people herself, whom she missed.

Loneliness is not a problem of old age

But how big is the problem of loneliness in old age? The answer depends on who you ask. Elke Schilling, who is actually a mathematician and statistician, regularly speaks of eight million people in Germany who are at least occasionally lonely. That would be just under half of the eighteen million people over 65.

Professor Tesch-Römer, head of the German Center for Aging, is more cautious with his assessment - there is simply a lack of reliable data. But he considers Elke Schilling's number to be overestimated: “Unfortunately there is a tendency in public discourse to equate aging with becoming lonely. That is not helpful because it obscures the view of the really lonely people and it reinforces negative age stereotypes. "

"Chronic, long-term loneliness is a big problem, but this form of loneliness affects a minority of the population," explains Tesch-Römer. Although one should not conclude from this that loneliness in old age is not a problem. According to the Eighth Age Report, five to ten percent of those surveyed still feel lonely on a regular basis.

To properly understand research on loneliness, one has to distinguish between social isolation and subjective loneliness. The former describes the amount of social contact that actually decreases with age. The latter, on the other hand, is the subjective feeling that the number of social encounters is lower than desired.

The last age survey shows that although objective social isolation increases with age, subjective loneliness changes only slightly with age. This observation also coincides with the results of the BBC Loneliness Experiment, which looked at loneliness globally. Even the effects of the pandemic affected all age groups about the same, as a study by the German Institute for Economic Research showed. Here it was even the 30 to 40 year olds who turned out to be particularly affected.

The big difference to loneliness in younger years is that loneliness in old age has other causes, such as widowhood or need for care - so it is more often chronic. "Anyone who is lonely in old age can no longer easily get out of this state," says Tesch-Römer.

Ways out of loneliness

There is no one right solution to combating loneliness. In the search for an all-encompassing public strategy, one comes across many small initiatives and private individuals instead. The most important thing is to find the people who are interested in help, no matter how. Digitization is often just a means to an end.

There are the grandmas against right, who would actually prefer to meet in person, but have used the opportunity of the digital meeting to strengthen their Germany-wide networking. And there is Günter Voss, the zealous and committed coordinator of the Berlin SeniorsComputerClub, who often finds new members through word of mouth. His oldest member recently passed his laptop on to his daughter at the age of 94, so that she can deal with the technology with her 72. His smartphone is completely sufficient for him. And so, club by club, step by step, digital and social participation is gaining strength every time.

correction: The article initially stated that it took the digital angel months to offer its program online, in fact it was several weeks.

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About the author

Serafin thing

Serafin was an intern with us at the end of 2020 and has been producing our podcast once a month since then. He once studied literature and is just finishing his master's degree in cultural journalism at the Berlin University of the Arts. He also works as a programmer and on all kinds of podcasts. He's interested in almost everything anyway. But especially for the interfaces between culture, society and the digital. It can be reached encrypted and by email. More of him here or on Twitter.
Published 12/12/2020 at 8:00 am