Concerns elderly Aussies 'disadvantaged' in government's WhatsApp initiative

Penny Burfitt
Lifestyle & Entertainment Producer
Some are concerned older citizens will struggle to access the government's latest coronavirus tech initiative. Photo: Getty Images

Concerned citizens are wondering how the government’s latest initiative will work for the most vulnerable to COVID-19 – our elderly.

The government this morning announced that they have partnered with tech companies to launch an official WhatsApp chat and smartphone application that will provide up to date, accurate information and advice on the coronavirus situation in Australia.

Many are concerned however that elderly people who often have low or no tech literacy have been forgotten in the initiative.

“It’s not bad,” one man said of the new initiative on Twitter. “Provided you already have a WhatsApp account.”

“The elderly will be disadvantaged as [the new services] use computers or the internet etc.” one woman wrote on Facebook.

“How are our elderly supposed to access Telehealth?”  another wondered. “Most don’t even have computers or smartphones?”

One person who teaches the elderly computer skills agrees.

“I teach elderly people computers,” she wrote. “They are at such a disadvantage.”

How many elderly are online?

CEO of the Council on the Ageing Ian Yates tells Yahoo Lifestyle the initiative is a great move from the government, but that steps need to be taken to allow access for the elderly who are not online.

“It is a concern,” he says, adding ‘these are good initiatives’ and for many elderly will be of enormous benefit.

“There is a significant number of old people who are not online, but there is also a large number who are online and use it for connecting to family,” he says, describing social media and smartphones as ‘a lifeline to people in residential care’.

Statistics suggest that people’s concerns are at least somewhat founded, with low numbers on tech literacy and access to devices among older Aussies being reported in the past few years.

A 2018 survey of Australians above the age of 50 by the office of the eSafety Commissioner found that 57% of Aussies aged 70 - 79 have access to a smartphone but that only 35% of those over 80 have one.

The study also found that 26% of over-50’s have a low digital literacy level, and 8% are completely disengaged.

Even more worrying is that three-quarters of the digitally disengaged group were aged 70 years and over.

With both applications the government launched designed for smartphone use, the concern is real that many of those most at risk of becoming seriously ill won’t be able to access the information at all.

How to reach our ‘offline’ elderly

Two-third of over-80's do not have access to an iPhone according to the study. Photo: Getty Images

Ian Yates says we have to look at how we can go further for people who don’t have access, suggesting mediums the older generations do tune into – namely TV and radio – should consider relaying information being shared on the app as part of a regular update.

“It’s important to make sure that kind of message [avaliable on the new tech platforms] is getting out on TV and radio,” he says. “It would be good if that could go out in a regular kind of update that isn’t being contested and that is clear that this is what the government’s messaging is.”

He suggests radio and TV programs could tap into their known peak listening times to share the information.

He also suggests that neighbours and family of elderly people without access to smartphones or online literacy can help out in a very simple way.

“People who might have a neighbour or someone they know who isn’t connected, [should] be prepared to print it out and, in line with social distancing, hand it over the fence or put it in their letterbox,” he says.

“That’s something simple that one can do for an elderly neighbour and families.”

How to download and use the WhatsApp and app

For those that do have access, the process of downloading the WhatsApp is thankfully quite simple.

Head to http://aus.gov.au/whatsapp on your phone, and then elect to open the page in WhatsApp. 

To sign up, it will ask that you send this message: ‘To learn more about COVID-19 in Australia, press the send button.’ Hit send, and you’re signed up. 

To access the official coronavirus app, head to the app store on your device and search ‘coronavirus’. The Coronavirus Australia official government app should be one of the first results to appear. Simply download and use. 

With additional reporting by Lucy Dean.

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