eDoris, aged eighty-seven, is isolated from the outside world. Not because of her distant home, her husband’s death, or her deteriorating health, but because she is unable to use the internet in an increasingly digital world.
Routine necessities, from paying bills to booking a vaccine, require hours on the phone, or simply impossible without a computer or mobile phone. So when BT inadvertently changed her phone number for 50 years, Doris’ isolation was closed.
“She’s missed calls from friends, hospital appointments, appointments with dentists, and probably many other things we don’t know about,” says her neighbor, Sue Hawkin. “For most people, losing a phone number would be an inconvenience. For Doris, it is nothing short of a disaster because she is completely dependent on her landline to contact the outside world.”
Doris’ story reflects the challenges facing millions across the country, as more and more services have been moved exclusively online during the pandemic.
Communications organization Ofcom estimates that 6% of households do not have the Internet, and 14% of adults rarely have access to it. While most are over 64 years old, 11% of the poorest households are offline. More people who have internet for social connection are not confident using it for banking and public services.
Sue Hokkien discovered the hurdles for offline families when she helped Doris arrange their finances. She discovered the elderly widow had inadvertently been paying TalkTalk £57 a month for a landline and broadband package that her late husband set up in 2013. Unaware of her broadband ownership or how to use it, Doris couldn’t shop for the best deal.
Hawken turned it into a half-price contract with BT, the only major provider to offer deals for landline phones only. However, the number Doris had had for 50 years was inadvertently reallocated, and BT’s attempts to get it back resulted in eight different numbers being given out over five months.
The number was returned at the end and the compensation paid after observer Intervened. TalkTalk says Doris was fully aware of the package, but also paid compensation when we questioned an unused service fee.
“If it wasn’t for my observation, she would have been paying the monthly bill forever because she can’t compare prices online quite like the rest of us,” Hawkin says. “The same thing happened with her electricity contract when she received a bill for the £2,500 she paid. She eventually managed to convince the supplier to refund her overpayment, and put her in a reasonable deal. She has no desire to move the utilities, but the result is that the companies ramp up fees every year.” .
For Hawken, seeing the world through the eyes of an 87-year-old was a revelation. “There are so many little things I can do really quickly on my phone that take a long time for Doris to do their job,” she says.
“For her, the internet is just something that gets in the way and prevents her from doing things ‘normally’.” Her response was ‘Why do they have to make everything so complicated when all I want to do is talk to someone?’ I can, and do, happily help her sailing around the world, but it makes me wonder how similarly vulnerable people, with no one to help, could handle it.”
Doris relies on LPG shipments for its heating. Its supplier recently stopped accepting checks. Without the Internet, or an easily accessible bank branch, Doris has to contact your bank to pay the bills. “It can take up to 30 minutes, listening to the endless device messages instructing us to use our smartphone, or download the app,” Hawken says.
“The phone line is automated, so there are a lot of numbers to squeeze in. The quality of the line is always terrible, and Doris finds it very difficult to understand what is being said. One gets the impression that the bank is doing its best to prevent people from calling them.”
Providing electric meter readings is impossible for Doris. The alternative for offline customers is to connect to an automated phone line without the option to talk to a human. “Doris has three electricity meters because she used to run holiday parties,” Hawkin explains. The telephone system will only accept a reading of one meter per home. I have no idea how this scale will turn out because the only scale it will accept reading for is not the scale used.”
Doris takes five medications a day and therefore requires regular repeat prescriptions. Surgery no longer accepts prescription requests over the phone. Patients must either provide a note at the surgery which, since Doris can no longer drive, can no longer do so, or download an app to order online.
You haven’t received an invitation to get a flu shot because alerts are sent via text messages. When Hawkin called to inquire, she was told that all available appointments had been booked by those who responded to a text message.
“We tried to book the vaccine in Asda, but that had to be booked online and the earliest appointment was 56 miles away,” Hawkin adds. “I have now booked it at my local Boots store – again this had to be done online with different forms to be filled out.”
Hawken now fears for Doris when analog phone lines are shut down at the end of 2025 to allow for an all-digital network. All households will require an internet connection for a working phone line. Those who cannot or do not want to sign up for broadband will be provided with a simple internet connection that they will have to set up to continue making calls.
However, there is a possibility that some phone numbers may be lost during the move, old phones may stop working, and homeowners are advised to purchase cell phones as a backup as digital lines will not work during a power outage or internet outage.
Charity Age UK is calling for increased investment in digital skills training and subsidized broadband packages, having found that 42% of people over the age of 75 do not use the internet.
A survey it conducted last year found that cost and trust were the main barriers, and warned that millions of people are being left behind as companies and government departments cut overhead by moving all of their services online.
“Given the 3 million people aged 65 and over in the UK who don’t use the internet, it’s essential that there are alternatives so they don’t miss out,” says Caroline Abrahams, director of the charity Age UK. “Everyone should be able to access public information and services, manage their finances, schedule GP appointments and purchase shopping without unnecessary hassle or expense, whether they are online or not.”
Hawkin says that the world as Doris lived it is terrifying. “The things I take for granted are a serious mystery because she knows nothing about technology, and just wants to talk to a human like she always did,” she says. “She probably should have embraced computers years ago, but at the time, she had no idea how fast and evolving everyday life on the internet was.
“Now, with her cognitive skills declining, it’s too late to learn them, she has to watch, bewildered, while the world shuts her down.”
* name changed
How to be a digital friend
A report by communications watchdog Ofcom shows that people over 75 are the most likely to have no internet in their homes, with more than a quarter of them offline.
Concerns have been raised about the potential for seniors to become more expensive, and not to get the best deals from utility services and insurance companies as a result of the disengagement from online marketplaces.
Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and Consumer Group Which? It raised concerns about selling insurance for white goods to potentially vulnerable seniors and buying inappropriate policies.
Charity Age UK says half of older people feel out of the pace of modern life and encourages young people to become ‘digital companions’ for the uncertainty of older people. This includes highlighting the benefits – such as keeping in touch with relatives – from being online and encouraging them to sites that may help them with their interests, such as eBay for antiques lovers.
The charity says that people who have not used technology in their working lives, are over 80, or live alone, are more likely to be separated. shin hickey