As most day-to-day services move to the internet, older and vulnerable people are left behind. Doris who is eighty-seven is cut off from the outside world. This is neither because her house is remote, nor because her husband died or as a result of her failing health but rather because she is unable to use the one enabling tool in a digital world; the internet.
In the growing digital world, essential tasks like paying bills, and booking a vaccine requires one to spend several hours on the phone and are nearly impossible to do if one does not have a mobile or computer. Doris’s isolation was sealed when BT changed her phone number which has been in use for 50 years.
Doris’s neighbor Sue Hawken says after the phone number was changed Doris “has missed calls from friends, hospital appointments, dentist appointments, and probably many other things that we don’t know about.” Sue added “For most people, the loss of a phone number would be an inconvenience. For Doris, it is nothing short of a disaster because she relies entirely on her landline for contact with the outside world.”
The story of Doris while unique reflects the existing challenges that many people are facing across the country since many and many services have been exclusively moved online during the pandemic.
According to Ofcom the telecoms regulator, an estimated 6% of households do not have access to the internet and among adults only 14% access it rarely. Many of these are above 64 and 11% of poorer households are also offline. Among a large number of those with access to the internet are only confident enough to use it for social connections and not for banking or access to public services.
Sue Hawken, Doris’s neighbor found out the depth of the problem that many offline households are facing when she was helping Doris arrange her finances. Sue discovered that the elderly widow was unknowingly paying for a landline and broadband package of TalkTalk at £57 a month that was set up in 2013 by her late husband. Doris did not know that she had broadband nor did she know how to use it, so was not capable of looking around for a better offer.
Hawken helped her by moving her to a package for half the price with BT which is the only big provider offering landline deals only. With the switch came to the problem of her number involuntarily getting relocated, a number that Doris had used for 50 years. BT tried to restore the landline but the efforts resulted in her getting eight different numbers in a space of five months.
After some time the number was eventually reinstated and Doris was compensated after an intervention. TalkTalk also claimed that Doris had been informed about her landline and broadband package but still went ahead to pay compensation when they were questioned about the charges for years of unused service.
Hawken notes that “without me noticing, she would have paid that monthly bill forever because she can’t compare process online like the rest of us.” Hawken also recalls an almost similar incident where she had to intervene to help Doris. “The same happened with her electricity contract when she was sent £2,500 which she paid. I eventually managed to get the supplier to refund her overpayments and put her on a sensible deal. She has no desire to move utilities, but the result is that the companies ramp up the charges every year.”
Viewing the world from her 87-year-old neighbor’s lens has been a revelation for Hawken who says “There are so many small things that I can do very quickly on my phone that take ages for Doris to do.” To Doris “the internet is just something that gets in the way and prevents her from doing things ‘normally’. Her response is ‘Why do they have to make everything complicated when all I want to do is speak to a person?’ I can, and do, happily help her navigate the world, but it makes me wonder how similarly vulnerable people, with no one to help, can manage,” she says.
The 87-year-old Doris still gets her LPA gas for heating delivered but her supplier recently stopped accepting cheques for payment. Since Doris does not have access to the internet or a bank branch, she has to phone her bank to make the payment. Hawken explains that the whole process “can take up to 30 minutes hanging on, listening to endless machine messages instructing us to use our smartphone or download the app. The phone line is automated, so there are a lot of numbers to press. The line quality is invariably terrible, and Doris finds it incredibly difficult to understand what is being said. One gets the impression the bank is doing everything it can to prevent people from calling them.”
Doris faces other hurdles when submitting electricity bills, getting a prescription that her surgery no longer gives over the phone and she also failed to book a vaccine appointment.
Be a Digital Buddy
Many people over 75 are likely not to have internet access in their homes according to a report from the Communications watchdog Ofcom. These leave many of them vulnerable to overcharges or limit their access to better deals of essential services such as insurance and utility.
Charity Age UK says that half of the elderly feel disconnected from the pace of modern life and the charity group encourages younger people to become “digital buddies” to the elderly who are unsure about navigating modern technology. This includes highlighting technological benefits such as being able to stay in touch with relatives and helping them access and navigate sites that they can use daily.
The charity believes that many people over the age of 80 who have not used any modern technology in their work lives and who may also be living alone are likely cut off.