Australia has an aging population with a subsequent increase in the number of people with acquired impairments who are at risk of being excluded from accessing technology. While technology can improve communication and information options for seniors, usage patterns and access barriers need to be assessed so that requirements can be met. This paper reports on the outcomes of a government funded study aimed at determining computer and Internet access use and barriers for seniors. Participants were 238 Seniors aged 60 and over who completed a survey; of these 30% indicated they had one or more impairments. Barriers identified related to cost; lack of information, training, access (at home or in the community), and interest; and attitudes related to age.
Telecommunications technologies, including computers and the Internet, are rapidly changing the nature of communicating, acquiring information, accessing services and performing daily tasks. Many seniors recognize the need to adopt new skills and attitudes if they are to benefit from these changes (1). In Australia, Seniors are one of four groups who have been identified at risk of being disadvantaged to equitable telecommunications access. The other groups comprise people with disabilities, people in rural and remote areas, and indigenous Australians. This paper reports on the computer and Internet access patterns and barriers for seniors in the Australian state of Victoria.
Australia has an aging population. By the year 2051, up to 38% of the population will be 65 or older (2). While those aged 60 and over represent a growing group of adopters of computer and Internet technology (3), they also experiences higher rates of functional limitations than the general population (4). This group are also users of a range of assistive technologies to assist their access at home and in the community. Having skills to access Internet services and develop online communication avenues to the outside world can lessen the physical and social isolation that may be experienced by those with cognitive, sensory, physical or communication impairments (3).
The importance of access to technology for seniors is evident and several studies have been conducted in Australia to assess the use of telecommunications equipment by seniors or by people with disabilities (1,5,6,7) although these did not look at a wide range of computer and Internet access barriers. Nevertheless, barriers have been reported by the Council on the Aging (3) and by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (5). Barriers included: functional limitations, poor access to relevant information (3); poor equipment design, lack of training, education and support (3,5); poor attitudes toward technology and need for more time to interact with computer technology (5); and high costs (3,5). Most of these barriers have also affected people with disabilities (8,9).
This study was undertaken because of a government-identified need to clarify access issues for seniors and provide recommendations that could be implemented by government, industry and community organizations. With the increasing emphasis on consumer consultation, the study was also informed and steered by stakeholders and drew on information about the access issues of the target group as well as issues experienced by people with disabilities. The aim of this paper is to report on the computer and Internet access usage patterns and barriers for seniors.
A survey containing forced choice and open response items was developed in consultation with a Steering Committee. The Committee was comprised of key personnel representing seniors and ageing, telecommunications and computer training organizations. The survey was piloted with five seniors who provided additional feedback through participation in a one-hour focus group. The survey sections relevant to this paper included: demographic information; difficulties and needs; information; and use of computers and the Internet. Participants were 109 males and 129 females aged 60 - 93 years, who responded to letters or advertisements in community newspapers or newsletters that invited them to share information about their telecommunication use and needs. Participants were either interviewed by telephone or they completed and returned a hard copy survey.
Of the 141 respondents who reported on their health status, 52% indicated they had an impairment that impacted on their use of telecommunications equipment. These individuals had hearing impairment (32%), physical impairment (9%), two or more impairments (9%) and vision impairment / other (2%). Gender differences were apparent with 20% of females and 65% of males reporting a hearing impairment, 7% of females and 14% of males with two or more conditions, 6% of females and 16% of males with a physical impairment, and 3% of each gender with a vision / other impairment. No impairment or health condition was reported by 64% of females and 3% of males.
A trend toward decreased computer use with increased age was evident (71% usage in 60-69 year group vs. 48% usage in 80+ group). Males were the primary group of computer users (73% males vs. 56% females ) . Females represented the majority of the 37% of non-computer users. Barriers for females were cost, lack of knowledge, lack of access, time required, attitudes related to age or lack of need or interest. These findings concur with other studies (10,11), and indicate that older women require information and support to become adopters of technology.
Almost two thirds (61%) of participants owned and used a computer; of these 80% used the Internet - a greater proportion than reported in earlier Australian studies (1,6,7). This may indicate that as more Seniors are becoming computer users they are also becoming more aware of the potential benefits of computer technology for communication (12). Seniors in this study used the Internet for a variety of social, information, leisure, financial and educational purposes, to varying extents. Respondents indicated that sending and receiving email from family members (80%) and from others (84%) were the most important Internet activities they engaged in. Finding information was the next most important activity (59%). In contrast, few participants used the computer for financial transactions involving banking (24%) and shopping (6%); a finding consistent with two other studies (6,13).
The home was the preferred environment for 86% of Internet users. Use of the Internet in libraries (by 1% of respondents) was lower than that reported by Steinberg and Walley (1) and may relate to the higher rate of computer ownership and affordability over the last few years. Cost was an issue for 48% of Internet users in this study but it did not deter some use of the Internet, either at home or in the community. Almost all (99%) Internet users identified training and assistance as necessary requirements. Respondents indicated that they had difficulties using computers (29%), email (17%) and the World Wide Web (24%). Assistance was sought primarily from families and friends (23%) and from multiple sources (54%). There was low use of on-line sources for assistance (4%). These findings on assistance are consistent with those noted by Katz & Aspden (13).
The increasing use of computers and the Internet has placed the spotlight on the adoption of this technology by senior citizens. Seniors in this study identified several barriers to adopting computer technology including cost, lack of information and training, lack of access (at home or in the community), lack of interest and attitudes related to age. While computer and Internet technology offers enormous potential for inclusion, indications are that government, industry and community responsiveness is necessary to reduce access barriers.
This study was funded by the Department of Communication Information Technology and the Arts.
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