By 2030, those over 65 will account for 23 percent of the population. The Covid-19 pandemic has put the lives of seniors under a spotlight. Getting online - especially right now - can mean the difference between getting food to your house, connecting with family, and getting the vital information you need to protect yourself. When digital literacy isn't promoted across all ages of society, what do we risk losing?

No Little Plans Season Two

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For most of us, Zoom calls with family members, online exercise classes, ordering food for delivery and any manner of Google-able things have been mandatory to our mental and physical health during the pandemic. But for older Canadians, it’s different. Many seniors lack a basic access to these lifelines. Researchers put it down to “digital ageism” — the subject of this episode of No Little Plans.

Canada is ageing. By 2030, 23 percent of the population will consist of Canadians over 65, a cohort that we’ve been hearing will live longer than ever before. All of our assumptions on healthy ageing, however, have been overshadowed in the last few months by Covid-19. The crisis has made us examine how much the systems we have in place in society are failing older people, how ill-prepared we are to protect the spread of the virus in assisted living facilities — and how far we have yet to come in improving seniors’ capacity to stay informed, safe and cared for in an increasingly networked world.

As Concordia University’s Kim Sawchuk explains in this episode, digital ageism is fundamentally about the denial of services to older people. Sawchuk is a professor of Communication Studies at the university. She’s written on age, ageing and its cultural impact since 1996. She is also a principal investigator Ageing + Communication + Technologies (ACT), a project that brings together researchers and partners to address how new forms of communication affect the experience of ageing.

“We need to provide access to people in their post-retirement years to devices and services,” Sawchuk argues. “We do not need to blame older people for not knowing.” Instead of the bias directed at seniors — that they’re somehow unable to learn new skills — Sawchuk makes the case for more access to digital literacy programs, plus a policy shift that make the internet and data in general more affordable to those on fixed incomes. “We need to lower the cost of access. We need to get rid of exorbitant punitive fees for data overages,” she says. “If we value universal health care and citizenship, we have to think about the universal right to access in this country.”

To find out more about the relationship of seniors to digital literacy, we spoke with Craig Silverman, the media editor of BuzzFeed. His team recently published a series of stories on the website under the banner “Protect Your Parents from the Internet Week.”

Silverman recalls the idea took root in early 2019, when he read independent research about Twitter and Facebook that noted people over 65 were struggling to distinguish between credible news and false claims online. He also points to “a generational susceptibility to the role algorithms play” in targeting content to demographics and user types. “All of us to some extent can fall to disinformation or misinformation,” Silverman notes, but his research discovered senior citizens were particularly prone to believing the misinformation, and to falling prey to malware and to online scams.

One of his takeaways for how to fix this problem goes back to the idea of broader education: Silverman points out that we have a wide array of digital literacy programs for school-aged students, but not nearly the same for those over 65. Filling that gap, he says, are public libraries with their roster of digital literacy programs tailored to various age groups and communities. Still, more needs to be done.

The way Kim Sawchuk sees it, everyone, no matter their age, should be able to engage in using technology “with joy and not stress.” In making this episode, we discovered a perfect example of this principle. We dropped in on a virtual gathering of members of RECAA, an organization in Montreal that advocates for senior communities. (The full name is Respecting Elder Communities Against Abuse.) The Zoom call was a rehearsal for members of an elder choir and their choir master — pure joy hearing and seeing those voices lift each other up.

Seventy-seven year old Anne Caines, a volunteer coordinator at RECAA, spoke to us about how members of the organization call each other elders instead of seniors. “Elders, for us, denotes a relationship rather than a category or demographic group,” she said.

When the conversation turned to the pandemic, Caines made a point of touching on the invaluable nature of digital literacy and how her peers lack the technology to stay in touch with their community. “Why can’t we see our loved ones?” she asked. Why can’t we get more older Canadians connected to the people they need most — at a time when they need it most of all?


No Little Plans is hosted by Vicky Mochama. This episode was produced by Ellen Payne Smith and Jay Cockburn, with executive production by Katie Jensen. This podcast was created by Strategic Content Labs by Vocal Fry Studios for Community Foundations of Canada. Subscribe or listen to us via the outlets above, and follow us at @nolittlepodcast on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Meanwhile, like Daniel Burnham said: “Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.”