Older people ‘need alternatives’ to digital services as research shows one in four live offline

Charity calls for more service options as ONS data shows a significant proportion of over-65s do not use the internet

Many older people use the internet rarely or not at all, meaning that online-only public services are likely to exclude some of society’s most vulnerable.

Annual research by the Office for National Statistics released this month found that 24% of those aged 65 and above have not used the internet in the last three months. Just 61% use it daily or almost every day, compared with 99% of those aged 16 to 44, according to data from telephone surveys of 3,076 people in Great Britain carried out between January and April 2019.

The research also found that a quarter of older people living alone are offline. Overall, 93% of households have an internet connection, but this falls to 73% for households consisting of one person aged at least 65. The gap was smaller for households of two adults with at least one aged 65 and above, with 89% connected.

The majority of women aged 75 and older live offline, according to separate ONS research released in May and based on research with 41,000 households carried out between January and March this year.  It found that just 41% of women in this age group had used the internet in the last three months, compared with 54% of men.

“We feel that public services need to offer a suitable alternative [to online channels], which might be a paper form, telephone or face to face, looking at the population and preferences within the client group,” said Sally West, policy manager at charity Age UK. 

But research with 100 English local authorities last year found this was often not the case, with 41 telling the charity that housing benefit and council tax reductions could only be claimed online. The majority offered some assistance, but 14 did not.

West said that training and support can help get older people online. But she added that while it is relatively easy to explain how to stay in touch with family online, interacting with the public sector often requires more complex skills such as awareness of online fraud and knowing how to protect personal data. 

“It’s not just a case of going to a couple of classes,” she said.

The new ONS research found that older people were less likely to interact with public authorities online than younger age groups, with just 34% of those aged at least 65 having submitted a completed form to a public authority in the last year, compared with 49% of all adults. There were similar gaps on downloading forms and gathering information from websites.

The research also found that email is the most popular internet activity among those aged 65 and above, with 67% having sent or received messages in the last three months. However, West said that while email is useful for basic enquiries and receiving notifications from public services, it is often suitable for the likes of benefit claims, due to its insecurity.

People with disabilities were also less likely than average to use the internet and use online public services, but the gaps were smaller than those for older people. Of those with a health condition or illness meeting the Equality Act’s definition of disability, 80% had used the internet daily or almost daily and 13% had not in the last three months, compared with 87% and 7% of all adults.

On use of public services, 46% of those defined as disabled had submitted completed forms in the last year, just three percentage points less than the average.


Sam Trendall

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