Stephen Austin, an 82 year old from Texas, went viral after posting cooking and comedy videos on TikTok. He has amassed more than 1.7 million followers, and said all the support makes him “feel not so alone”, the Daily Mail reported.

Not all seniors are fortunate enough to share Austin’s experience – Covid-19 has left many seniors isolated due to their lack of digital literacy. In New Zealand, the Office for Seniors is leading the charge to help seniors stay connected.

Supporting seniors should be considered “less as a problem” and more “as an opportunity” to recognise the many roles they play in society, says Diane Turner, the Office’s Director. She explains how New Zealand is increasing seniors’ digital literacy.

Building support networks

The Office for Seniors acts as an advocacy group for various issues affecting seniors in New Zealand. Making sure that “New Zealand is a place where we have the opportunity to age positively and well” is her goal, she stated on the Office’s website.

For an individual to age well, this requires financial security, access to health and social services, access to warm, secure housing and having a social connection, she says.

The Office set up the Age Friendly programme, which aims to make it easy for the elderly to “stay connected” and “healthy”, it said. The initiative is based upon The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Age Friendly Cities and Communities Programme, Turner says.

1114 cities across 44 countries are taking part in the project to create more age-friendly spaces in their communities, according to the WHO.

“Virtual villages” are one such project the Office has helped fund and support, Turner says. These communities provide a support network for seniors and encourage local residents to help each other carry out daily tasks like grocery shopping. The team hopes communities will be able “to make changes that benefit older people”, she adds.

Closing the digital exclusion gap 

Research shows that seniors are digitally excluded, says Turner. In Singapore, the Infocomm Media Development Authority found that only 58 percent of residents above 60 years old are internet users as compared to 89 percent for all residents, according to Channel News Asia.

The pandemic “brought a heightened awareness to how reliant we are on digital communications”, Turner says. Seniors struggled with online services like grocery deliveries as the New Zealand government advised them to stay home during the virus outbreak.

The Office organised digital literacy lessons tailored for the elderly. Most lessons were in person as “it’s best to be face to face for older people”. Being able to “see, feel, touch” is the preferred way of learning, she explains.

It would be unproductive to send an older person on a day-long course, she says. That is why the agency keeps training sessions to two hours and below, Turner advises.

The Office for Seniors partnered training providers like the Digital Inclusion Alliance Aotearoa to create a literacy framework and conduct training, she says. The training covers a range of skills, from turning on devices to online banking,making video calls, and being cybersecure, its website wrote.

Surveys found that seniors who attended the course became more comfortable using digital tools like Zoom, Turner says.

The Office partners entities like banks and insurance companies in these trainings, as these companies need seniors to be digitally adept to use their services, she explains. It also distributed free devices like smartphones and tablets to elderly members of the Pacific ethnic community.

For governments looking to support their elderly citizens, New Zealand has created a structure that others can follow. It has allowed for community level support networks and recognised the importance of technology as it closes the digital divide that modern societies face.

Lead image from the Office for Seniors’ Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/OfficeforSeniors)