Home People & Planet Helping India’s elderly cross the digital divide as the country ages

Helping India’s elderly cross the digital divide as the country ages

Digital inclusion of the elderly is a key component of India’s recovery from the pandemic
Public Policy Student at the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago
Professor of Practice at McGill University’s Institute for the Study of International Development

India boasts more than 560 million internet users, making it the second largest online market in the world. Yet there are vast disparities in use, by age, socio-economic status, gender and areas where people reside. The penetration rate for smart phones is about 54%, but only around 5% for those 55 years and older.  

Over the next 30 years, the elderly population in India will soar to more than 300 million. As services of all kinds increasingly gravitate to digital platforms, Indian policymakers need to give greater attention to the low level of connectivity among older seniors. Access to the internet and digital literacy are becoming vital to civic participation and the ability to access healthcare, social and economic services – which are increasingly computerised and digitalised. Greater familiarity with digital tools will also reduce dependency, increase autonomy and boost self-worth among India’s fast-growing elderly population. 

Barriers to digital literacy 

A 2017 survey in the National Capital Region (NCR) found that 86% of senior citizens did not know how to use digital technology or computers. This lack of knowledge—also common to other parts to India—can be attributed to a variety of factors, including lack of reliable internet access, cost of internet service subscription and devices, and the inability to read and write (less than one-third of the over-65 female population in India is literate). The lack of digital tools and services in local languages further exacerbates the situation.

The way to achieve digital literacy and accessibility among India’s elderly is to engender trust in digital technology and make them aware of different services and benefits of the digital world.

There is a strong gender dimension to digital access in a country where nearly two-thirds of the population lives in rural areas. In these areas, male heads of household are often the only family member to possess a digital device. Women, including older women, rely on the head of household for internet connectivity. This limits what and for how long they may utilise these devices. Some villages even limit women’s use of mobile phones, further hindering their connectivity to social media and educational resources and information. This diminishes women’s overall digital empowerment and independence. By curtailing women’s access to the internet, these villages also restrict opportunities for individual growth.

Additionally, ageing is accompanied by a declining ability to understand, learn, and use cognition to adapt and use skills. Older persons are prone to losing their sensory abilities, which makes it more difficult for them to adapt to the ever-changing digital technologies. While these ageing-related health challenges deter the use of digital tools, digital tools actually contribute to solving many of the challenges confronting seniors. 

How digital technology can improve the quality of life of the elderly

Digital technology is increasingly tapped to provide education, elderly care, health and social services. The pandemic has accelerated this trend. Mobile health and telemedicine have greatly improved access to healthcare. The COVID-19 pandemic provided India’s health systems an unprecedented opportunity to increase access and coverage. Healthcare providers found they could adopt telemedicine systems to reduce doctor-patient visits, which helped weaken the chain of transmission of infections. As in other countries, India’s elderly is at heightened risk of serious illness and mortality due to COVID-19.

In September 2021, India launched the National Digital Healthcare Mission, which had been piloted last year in six states. The initiative supports development of the country’s integrated digital health infrastructure through the creation of a digital health ID, a registry of doctors (Digi-doctor), and establishment of a health facility registry and electronic health records. This new digital health infrastructure, and expanded use of telemedicine, can make healthcare more accessible for remote populations, while ensuring improved dissemination of critical health-related information among the elderly.

Many older persons who already enjoy internet access use it for social media and messaging purposes. Such use enables older persons to connect with their families, make and maintain relationships, and reduce feelings of loneliness, contributing to improved mental and social wellbeing. Three-quarters of respondents in the survey carried out in the NCR reported that a lack of digital knowledge made them feel marginalised and underprivileged.

As digital technology is made more accessible, affordable and inclusive among the elderly population, more evolved benefits will emerge. Wireless sensors can help regulate sleep patterns and provide information about the health status of seniors to family members and other caregivers. Digitally initiated voice prompts can remind older persons to take medicines.

Policy solutions

The way to achieve digital literacy and accessibility among India’s elderly is to engender trust in digital technology and make them aware of different services and benefits of the digital world. This can be achieved through outreach to improve basic writing and reading skills, and then skilling around the use of digital tools. Expansion of internet networks and provision of affordable access—especially to poor and marginalised communities—is critical to reducing digital inequalities.

Greater familiarity with digital tools will reduce dependency, increase autonomy and boost self-worth among India’s fast-growing elderly population.

The private sector and nongovernment organisations complement the role of government. HelpAge India has started a digital literacy programme introducing elders to the online world by conducting workshops across the country. Easy Hai, a Bengaluru-based startup, trains people, mostly over the age of 50, in the use of smartphones and laptops through classes and tutorials conducted over Zoom.

Language and cultural barriers can be overcome through field testing and community feedback from different regions and population groups. To remove barriers that come with ageing, the design requires customisation of tools for the elderly. Making the interface friendlier for older persons (for example, using larger font and screens), and providing functions of speech and voice recognition, will promote engagement by seniors in the fast-expanding digital world.

India has taken positive steps toward addressing the enormous digital divide between its elderly citizens and the rest of the population. Yet the growing number of older persons over the coming years requires greater investment in overcoming this divide, and strong efforts to ensure that the elderly remain connected in an increasingly tech-infused society.

This article is part of a series on the ageing of India to the year 2050. The first piece was published on Unravel and can be read here, the second piece can be read here and the third piece can be read here.

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Bhargavi Thakur
Public Policy Student at the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago

Bhargavi is a second year public policy student at the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago. Before this, she completed a postgraduate diploma in Liberal Studies from Ashoka University, India and a bachelor’s in economics from the University of Delhi. She has worked in the policy space of behavioural sciences, sexual and reproductive health, and criminal justice against women. Bhargavi also leads a youth collective called ‘Sang’ which is working with underprivileged communities in India to help fight poverty and injustices against women.

Bart W. Édes
Professor of Practice at McGill University’s Institute for the Study of International Development

Bart W. Édes is Professor of Practice at McGill University’s Institute for the Study of International Development, and a former director for social development at the Asian Development Bank. Bart is a policy analyst, commentator, and author of Learning From Tomorrow: Using Strategic Foresight to Prepare for the Next Big Disruption (2021). An APF Canada Distinguished Fellow, he focuses on developing Asian economies, international development, cross-border trade and investment, innovation, social policies, and transformative trends reshaping the world.

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