Elderly make the digital switch during Covid-19 pandemic

By, New Delhi
Mar 01, 2021 03:34 AM IST

India has about 104 million people aged above 60 — just a shade below China —according to the 2011 Census. But digital inclusion has been a distant dream for them. The government’s National Digital Literacy Mission (NDLM) aims to empower at least one person per household.

It is 11am on Friday and a digital literacy class has just begun on video communication platform Zoom. The learners — senior citizens aged 60 to 80 — are listening to the trainer, rapt; some are fervently jotting down notes. The first topic of the 15-day workshop is how to make a conference call on a smartphone. After 15 minutes of instructions, the participants are asked to make a conference call. Some flounder, but the faces of those who succeed brim with pride and amazement.

Senior citizens take part in a digital literacy class by Agewell Foundation. (Sourced)
Senior citizens take part in a digital literacy class by Agewell Foundation. (Sourced)

“I did not know how to use this feature on my phone, though I needed it to connect with my family and friends. It is so easy,” says Om Prakash Goyal, 65, one of the most enthusiastic learners in the class, who took copious notes throughout the lesson. “But my prime objective is to learn how to book a doctors’ appointment, order medicines, and do banking online. The pandemic has made it necessary, ” says Goyal, a retired government engineer, who lives in Paschim Vihar.

India has about 104 million people aged above 60 — just a shade below China —according to the 2011 Census. But digital inclusion has been a distant dream for them. The government’s National Digital Literacy Mission (NDLM) aims to empower at least one person per household. It, however, does not accord any priority to senior citizens. According to a survey by Agewell Foundation, an NGO, in 2018, among senior citizens in Delhi-NCR, around 86% of the 5,000 respondents were found to be digitally illiterate.

But the pandemic has led to an exponential demand for digital skills among them, with senior citizens aged 60 to 85, turning to online workshops organised by NGOs, startups, volunteer groups. The lessons in these workshops, include smartphone use, digital payments, e-banking, e-shopping, booking an appointment with doctors online, using cab-hailing apps, and monitoring health through apps.

“We get about 100 calls a day compared to 10 before the pandemic for our classes for seniors. Many of them are well-to-do and own expensive smartphones, but are unable to use them. Most say their children do not have time and patience to teach them digital skills,” says Himanshu Rath, founder, Agewell Foundation, which provides free online digital literacy classes for senior citizens. His organization’s digital training calendar is packed for the next few months.

Santosh Kaul Ogra, 69, who coordinates with NGOs for digital literacy classes on behalf of many RWAs in Delhi, says that these days he is flooded with demands from senior citizens wanting to attend digital literacy workshops. “Their biggest concern is how to live with dignity during their old age,” says Ogra. “During pandemic they realized that the mobile phone is a powerful device, which they can use for information, entertainment, online transactions and connecting with friends and families.”

Kusum Gupta, 77, from Saket, attended a digital literacy class last year. The skills she learnt, she says, are coming quite handy. These days, at 6am, she and her friends attend a yoga class on Zoom. “We are a group of about 20. Before the pandemic, we used to do yoga in the neighbourhood park but now, we do it online. Technology helped me remain connected with friends in these tough times of social distancing,” says Gupta. “My friends say I am quite a tech pro. I watch news, movies, listen to music on YouTube. But technology can help only if you don’t have any hearing or eyesight problems.”

Earlier this week, Sushil Bawa, 70, a retired teacher in Rohini, decided to junk her paper diary for a calendar app. She is currently attending a digital literacy workshop. “Now I will use only my phone to get alerts about birthdays, anniversaries of my friends and family.I am also learning how to edit photos, make a photo collage to send personalized wishes to them on special occasions. It keeps me engaged,” says Bawa.

Rajkumar Prajapati, 25, a digital trainer at Agewell Foundation, says, “Patience is the key while training elderly as you have to repeat things.” The questions he frequently faces include what is the difference between Chrome and Google; how can one look slimmer in photos, do Google Maps always give the right directions?

Shreya Bajaj, 30, who in July launched Easy Hai, an initiative to impart digital skills to the elderly with her sister Surbhi, says demand for her Zoom sessions continues to grow. She charges 200 per session and organizes two sessions every day.

“So far I have taught digital skills to over 5,000 people. During the lockdown, elderly members in my family struggled with technology. That is how this initiative was born. I have realized that every senior has his or her own digital competency level,” says Bangalore-based Shreya. “Initially, our participants were from Bangalore only; now they are also from Delhi, Chandigarh, Pune, Udaipur, Raipur.”

Sonali Sharma, head, advocacy and elderly empowerment, HelpAge India, another NGO, which provides free digital training to seniors all across the country, says that of all the workshops her organization conducts for seniors, the digital training one is the most popular. “Demand for our digital classes is the highest in Hyderabad and Chennai, followed by Delhi. Most of our members are well- educated, middle-class senior citizens, wanting to use technology to live independent lives.”

Agrees Saumyajit Roy, co-founder and CEO, Emoha Elder Care, a company that provides elderly care services, “Earlier, seniors who are our members, were quite hesitant about video calls and ordering things online. Now they feel it is better to acquire digital skills for their own safety and security. The pandemic has proved to be a catalyst for digital empowerment of the elderly.”

Savita Verma, 64, has taken it upon herself to teach digital skills to her husband. “ I attend the class in the morning and take notes. In the evening, I teach him whatever I learn . I feel empowered and in control of my life, thanks to my newly acquired digital skills. It is really amazing how a smartphone can change your life.”

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    Manoj Sharma is Metro Features Editor at Hindustan Times. He likes to pursue stories that otherwise fall through the cracks.

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