Using lived experience to reduce social isolation in older people

Our Community Engagement Officer, Lauren Howe, reflects on what we’ve learnt from the Older People’s Panel.

The pandemic highlighted how vulnerable older people are to social exclusion, especially older people that are digitally excluded. Even before the pandemic, we knew digitally excluded older people faced additional barriers to connecting with loved ones and essential services, negatively impacting their health and wellbeing. 

In response, Good Things Foundation partnered with the Scheinberg Relief Fund to create a programme called Connect Up, tackling loneliness and social isolation for  older people. Through Connect Up, we formed an Older People’s Panel, enabling Good Things Foundation to work directly with older people that have experienced social exclusion firsthand. 

So what is an Older People’s Panel?

With the help of four community partners – Age Connect Torfaen, Clear Community Web CIC, Leicester Ageing Together and Smartlyte –  we invited five older people with experience of digital exclusion to form a panel. The panellists came from a variety of backgrounds and each brought their own unique experience of getting online. Crucially, all our panellists had been supported by our community partners to improve their digital skills, and therefore had established a trusted relationship with them.  

With our panellists, we worked through a series of workshops to discuss themes around: online safety, video-calling, shopping online, the role of the government in getting older people online, the impact of the cost of living crisis, and more. 

Why did we choose a panel approach?

As evidenced by previous projects, we know that the most effective methods of support are informed by working directly with people with lived experience of exclusion. Therefore, the Older People’s Panel was set up to:

  • Capture different experiences of getting online as an older person
  • Evidence key benefits of being online for older people 
  • Establish key barriers older people experience towards being online
  • Co-design learning materials, resources and methods of support 

So, what have we learned?

Older people are uniquely vulnerable to digital & social exclusion

The panel reinforced the unique vulnerability of older people to social and digital exclusion. Due to their age and the speed that technology is developing, a large number of older age groups have not grown up with current technology. As a result, getting online is often unfamiliar and a source of fear for older people. A key deterrent identified by our panellists was the fear of online security and being taken advantage of whilst online. 

“Do your research and never take anything for granted, older people are vulnerable because they don’t know things about it and they can get sucked in” – Older People’s Panellist

The speed of technological advancement has even caused older people who consider themselves to be more ‘digitally able’, to worry about keeping up with technology. Several of our panellists have used technology in employment but remained concerned about staying up to date in the future. 

These concerns remind us that digital exclusion is not as simple as being offline versus online. ‘Being online’ is fluid and must be maintained –  highlighting the significance of providing ongoing digital skills support for older people, rather than isolated incidents of support. 

The Cost of Living Crisis has created more barriers to older people getting online

The combined effect of Covid-19 and the Cost of Living Crisis has made being online both more essential but more challenging for older people. Panellists revealed that throughout the Covid-19 pandemic they felt abandoned and alone. Being online was crucial for connecting with friends, accessing services and more broadly maintaining their wellbeing. 

“People feel forced onto the internet” – Older People’s Panellist

“My internet is a lifeline. My family lives all over the world and I couldn’t do without broadband at home.” – Older People’s Panellist

Despite easing of restrictions, panellists continue to require the use of the internet for the above purposes and more, yet the cost of living has forced them to consider whether they can afford to be online.

Without access to the internet, essential services become inaccessible to older people, including accessing banking, benefits, healthcare appointments, online shopping and more. Therefore older people not only need support to improve their digital skills, they need assistance to access data and devices.

Working directly with people with lived experience is the best way to understand, support and communicate their needs

The approach of working with a panel gave us the opportunity to hear directly from older people who experience social and digital exclusion. We wanted to know  exactly what their wants and needs are in terms of digital skills support. We also worked with the panel to co-design resources and support approaches, such as the Zoom Club Guidebook and ‘Supporting Older People to Use Digital’ training. 

Whilst collaborating with nationwide organisations at our Connect Up roundtable, we invited some of the older people that we were working with to participate in the roundtable themselves. They shared their views and stories directly with key stakeholders and provided roundtable attendees with a clear picture of the issues that older people are facing. 

The Panel approach has empowered panellists in more ways than one

By working with panellists as the experts, panellists felt heard and valued during a time when lots of older people feel forgotten or left behind. Panellists hugely appreciated the opportunity to not only voice their experiences to us, but also to connect with key stakeholders at the roundtable. 

“You actually take us seriously” – Older People’s Panellist

“This is power – this goes straight to the government” – Older People’s Panellist

Panellists have said their confidence has increased and that they feel more socially connected as a result of participating in the panel. From sharing experiences with each other, panellists have also said they are more likely to try doing things online that they haven’t before, such as online shopping. 

Trusted relationships established by community partners are key to learning from people who experience social exclusion

Good Things Foundation has always worked closely with our community partners because we know that they are the experts at supporting people in their community. For Connect Up, we wanted to draw on the expertise of people experiencing exclusion too.   

The assembling of the panel would not have been possible without the trusted relationships that had already been established between our community partners and the people they support. Because of this trust, we were able to establish a safe space for panellists to share their experiences of getting online. 

The Older People’s Panel has reinforced not only the critical role community partners continue to play in our work, but also the significance of collaborating with community partners and people who experience social exclusion firsthand.

Lauren Howe

Community Engagement Officer

Lauren supports the Community Engagement and Experience team to grow and strengthen the Online Centres Network. Through the collection of network insights, she works to tailor our support to the needs of network members and their learners.