Neglected and forgotten: The elderly being left behind in an online world

Businesses should be compelled to offer the same inducements to customers who aren’t online as to those who are, says John Dolan in his weekly column
Neglected and forgotten: The elderly being left behind in an online world

SILVER SURFER: But not all elderly people have access to a computer. Picture posed by model

WE hear so much about equal rights in this day and age, that it will come as a surprise to many of you if I gave you a brazen example of inequality taking place right under our noses.

Sure, it’s not a ‘hot topic’ case of inequality; it doesn’t involve gender, race or sexuality. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t stonewall inequality all the same.

The case to which I’m referring relates mainly to inequality on grounds of age.

I’m talking about a recent offer for people to switch their energy provider and receive, in return, a favourable rate and hundreds of euro off their grocery shopping.

A tempting offer alright... but wait. There’s a catch.

To avail of it, you need to subscribe to direct debit payments to that company, or pay via ebills - in other words, you need to have an online presence.

If you don’t exist online, sorry, no tempting offer for you, and no money off your next grocery shop.

Some of you may feel inclined to move on at this point, believing that everybody has a computer and is online in some form these days.

Not so.

Sure, there are an estimated 4.51 million internet users in Ireland, according to a Digital: 2021 Ireland report in January, but that still leaves 9% of the population who can’t, or don’t want, to surf. Most of this cohort will be either very young, or on the older side.

We’re not talking big numbers here, but still it’s a few hundred thousand people. And the fact these people are such a small minority should make the inequality they suffer on a daily basis even harder for us to stomach.

An elderly reader highlighted this issue following my column a few weeks ago about the rising price of, well, everything, in this country at the moment.

The Dublin Hill lady, who is in her seventies, wrote: “I am an OAP who feels that businesses have let the elderly people of this country feeling left out in the cold, simply because we don’t have a computer or a device to contact them.”

She went on to relate the example above. Since she doesn’t have a computer or pay by direct debit, she was instantly excluded from it.

“When I saw the offer, I couldn’t see anybody turning their nose up at it, especially as I have shopped in that particular grocery store for years,” she said. “Well, if you don’t have access to go online, you can forget it.

“I feel this is very unfair and would like if they would consider this practice from our point of view.”

This lady, who lives alone, feels she is being penalised at every turn for her decision - and it was still a free world last time I checked - not to have a computer. She has a name, an address, and a landline. She exists in every way, just not in the way the modern world demands.

Should be we turning our backs on this small cohort of people, mainly elderly, who simply don’t want to engage with the online world, if it’s all the same, thanks very much?

Sometimes, this may be because their eyesight is poor, or their arthritic fingers cannot tap on a small device. Or some of these people may just be set in their ways - hardly a crime.

Shouldn’t we, as a society, be ensuring that the same financial offers from utilities and other businesses at least contain an option for people to take them up by phone or letter? Isn’t that fair? And isn’t the fact it doesn’t already happen a prima facie case of inequality?

Of course, we all know why big businesses do not accommodate such people: An easy life.

It suits them to reduce their staff numbers to the core and do all their bidding electronically, never having to hear a customer’s voice from one year to the next.

And that’s fine too, for the 90-odd per cent who happily engage with the online world... but what about the rest?

It’s not as though these companies would be deluged with phone calls if they asked people without a computer to ring a number and avail of their offers.

The elderly reader explained to me why she was so concerned about taking out direct debits, in particular with utility companies such as energy providers.

Their bills can vary greatly in price with the seasons, and she is concerned that an occasion may arise where her pension doesn’t cover it.

Or, as she put it: “If you don’t have the amount required at the time, boy, are you in trouble.

“With all the energy bills soaring to such extreme prices, how is anyone supposed to guess how much their heating bill is going to be, to ensure their pension will cover it?”

The decision by Bank of Ireland to close 88 - a third - of its branches last week was another example of this abandonment of people unless they can do business online.

Again, the people suffering most there will be the customers who don’t have a computer.

It’s an inconvenience that even extends to other areas of this lady’s life.

“We cannot book tickets for concerts - and I don’t mean just Electric Picnic or Ed Sheeran! Almost everything is now done online.”

One solution here may be for the Government to provide free computers to the elderly, and perhaps local organisations could arrange for free training on how to use them.

But I often think we put too much blame on the Government for anything going wrong in the world, and not enough on the businesses involved.

Quite simply, they should be compelled to offer the same inducements to customers who aren’t online as to those who are.

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