India: ICT for senior citizens-Where are we today?

October 1, was the UN-designated International Day of Older persons and the theme this year was  “Celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the International Year of Older Persons: Towards a Society for All Ages”. In his message for the day,  the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said:

Over the past decade, we intensified our efforts to build a “society for all ages” and to promote international commitment to the United Nations Principles for Older Persons. The Principles are founded on the need to build an inclusive society that emphasizes participation, self-fulfilment, independence, care and dignity for all. To transform them into deeds, we have campaigned for policies that will enable older persons to live in an environment that enhances their capabilities, fosters their independence, and provides them with adequate support and care as they age.

The motto “towards a society for all ages” was adopted in 1999 and reaffirmed at the Second World Assembly on Ageing, held in Madrid in 2002. It emphasizes the need to treat older persons as both agents and beneficiaries of development. […]

The international community is also devoting increasing attention to the human rights of older persons. We must put an end to age discrimination, abuse, neglect and violence against older persons. I urge states to put the necessary legal protections in place, and I urge all partners to help countries develop the capacity and institutions to achieve this objective.

For us in India, this seems like a perfect time to stop and take stock of the role played by ICTs in the lives of our senior citizens.

According to the Norwegian Board of Technology [pdf],

Information and communication technology (ICT) characterises today’s society. Side by side with technological development we will within the next few years be faced with a greatly increasing number of elderly people. What are the concrete challenges connected with elderly people and information and communication technology? How can positive possibilities be exploited and negative effects avoided?

With a rise in life expectancy, India has today joined the ranks of countries where demographic ageing has become an important issue. At the time of the 2001 census, there were 77mn people in the 60+yrs category, which was about 7.5% of the total population. The 2008 estimate is around 86mn. India today has the 2nd largest population of senior citizens. According to the UN, by 2050 about 20% of India's population is likely to be over 60yrs.

With the rapid growth of the elderly segment, the key question facing policy-makers (and the society in general) is how to ensure an active, healthy, independent, life of dignity for the elderly and help improve their quality of life. Recognizing the need for a national policy in this area, the Indian Government launched the National Policy on Older Persons in 1999, which sought to address principal areas of concern such as financial security, healthcare, shelter, education, welfare, protection of life and property etc., and promote the concept of active ageing among the older population. The policy also acknowledges the role of NGOs and civil society in complementing the efforts of the government in this direction.

In their paper ‘Technology Interventions for Elderly People‘ [pdf], authors VC Goyal and Usha Dixit mention that

The use of technology to support independent living and promote independence of older persons is mentioned in recent Government policy documents (e.g. National Policy on Older Persons). There are other Government (and some non-government) initiatives which, although not specifically targeted at technological interventions for older persons, could contribute towards supporting comfortable and dignified living for this section of the society. There exists a vast scope of technology interventions for welfare of elderly people in the country so that the technologies are accessible, affordable and adaptable to the specific needs. Technological interventions can greatly help in achieving the objectives of the NPOP by providing vital inputs and capabilities.

So where are we currently as far as ICT for senior citizens/ older persons is concerned?

One of the main concerns cited often as a point against ICT has been the perception of inertia and/or technophobia among the elderly. Andy Oram at O'Reilly Radar, while commenting on a point from Nandan Nilekani's book  – Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation, that “technophobia should not be assumed“, says that:

A lot of technologists glibly anticipate that computers and Internet access will be rejected by some group of people who are implicitly labeled ignorant or clueless: racial minorities, poor people, the elderly (“how can you get my grandmother to use this?”), etc. In every case, the key to adoption turns out to be access and sometimes the availability of useful applications. When presented with the opportunity, these populations always prove eager to take advantage…The problem is not the people, but other factors such as availability, cost, and usefulness.

Lesley D. Biswas at The WIP writes about how in a lot of cases, the ‘Silver Surfers’ are embracing the Internet to cope with a lonely future. She says:

For seniors who have been culturally conditioned to believe that their children will be at their sides in their winter years, living alone has come as a rude awakening. Loneliness itself is largely disorienting, and the absence of family members at this critical time makes it all the more profound. Now that the ideal of the Indian family structure is becoming more and more passé, seniors are finding new ways to stay connected with their children.

But, unlike in developed nations, it’s a late start for many seniors in India. Since they did not grow up with iPods and cell phones in their back pockets, and neither were they exposed to computers at work, integrating seniors into the virtual world is initially a challenge. But more often than not, once they get over their inhibition, exploring the new world at their fingertips is becoming a fascinating experience that many seniors are slowly enjoying. With children settled abroad or in other cities, a large number of senior citizens are now seeking out tutors and training schools where they can learn to use a computer.

It is therefore, no surprise that one of the key areas where currently ICT has made inroads into the lives of senior citizens is

Helping them cope with loneliness/battling exclusion:- Land-lines/Mobile telephony, messaging, E-mails and chat are some of the ICT applications that senior citizens are warming up/ have warmed up to in order to remain connected. Of late, social networking among elderly has also become a possibility with the launch of Verdurez – A social networking site, designed for the elderly.

The site, described as the “Facebook for those 55yrs and above”, caters to the needs of senior citizens to battle loneliness, connect, network, get news and information pertaining to health etc., play games/ work on puzzles, and share life online with a group of like-minded people in their age bracket. The site has over 4000 registered users.

Screenshot of Verdurez - a social networking site for elderly Indians
Screenshot of Verdurez – a social networking site for elderly Indians

Seema at is however, a bit cautious in her appreciation of the idea:

Social networking site for senior citizen sounds good concept, but i’m more concerned about the how many Indians of this age use computers and Internet and for how long they will use networking sites. Promoters should promote it well and associate some NGOs and oldage homes with them. We need our elder generation to enjoy the advantages of getting connected with like-minded people online through such social networking sites and don’t feel alone.

Her concern appears to be justified. For, according to Mrutyunjay Mishra of , senior citizens

…account for only 0.8% of the internet users in India, hence in our estimate around 0.32 million regular internet users are Senior Citizens (of 38miilion total regular internet users).

Nevertheless, despite the low reach through Internet, we have many other Web-based initiatives designed for the elderly, such as:

Providing them a feeling of safety: For example, a security portal Hamari Suraksha has been launched by the Mumbai police to register senior citizens and ensure their safety in the face of rising crimes against them.

Education and Healthcare: We are gradually becoming more familiar with initiatives(and the need for more integrated/better delivery of these kinds of initiatives) for the elderly in the areas of training &/or e-learning, e-health etc.

Senior citizens, especially those in the urban, up-market cluster, are themselves are getting gradually drawn into the E-culture. Thus we see that today many senior citizens are using the Internet to do their banking, paying utility bills, booking e-tickets etc., which gives them the flexibility of not having to leave the confines of their home yet do things on their own without having to to depend on others to do these tasks for them.

While in the case of the Internet, penetration, connectivity and accessibility are limiting factors, the mobile telephony market is much more broad-based. According to Rajesh Jain of Emergic,

India is now growing at about 10 million new mobile users every month, and that pace of growth will continue. We will probably be close to 450 million subscribers by end of 2009

Mobile based ICT initiatives thus hold the promise of greater reach in the current scenario. Helplines, SMS based services etc., (for ex: the The Chandigarh based NGO DadaDadi is using short messaging service (SMS), telephonic helpline and other technologies (web-based) in an effort to ensure the safety of elderly people living alone in the city) are increasingly being used to help the elderly stay connected with convenience. In The India Post, Jorawer Singh writes about the 24X7 helpline launched in Chandigarh on October 1:

On the International day for the Elderly or the Senior Citizens’ Day as we call it, the Older Adults of the tricity gets a much awaited 24 X 7 helpline. The helpline number is 9888 9888 47. The helpline, to be monitored by a local NGO, will provide information and assistance related to varied needs of the senior citizens, from sending electricians, plumbers to legal aid and support in fighting for their cause.

The possibilities are many and India is only just waking up to the potential of harnessing the power of the ICTs to empower it's senior citizens to lead a fuller, active and independent life with dignity. However, in doing so, we need to take care of various challenges such as accessibility, design elements, human factors etc.

For example, mobile phones often have complicated navigation steps and  and the interface is not suitable for use by the elderly. (Though, on the other hand, a mobile designed and marketed specifically for the older persons may not be exciting to the target consumer). Also, in our enthusiasm to provide gerontechnology solutions, we should not dehumanize the process to the extent that the older persons feel more isolated and disengaged.

Furthermore, we should keep in mind that the elderly are not a homogeneous group and therefore one solution will not work for all. Thus there are specific challenges to be overcome in trying to integrate various sub-categories of older persons (ex: the need for ‘last mile solutions – to reach the distant potential users of ICT’  to integrate the ‘below poverty line” and/or rural elderly.

Furthermore, as Rozina Parmar points out in her paper “ICT for elderly” [pdf]

Clearly we need a new model of innovation in ICT for ageing, one which is needs oriented and puts users at the center of the ICT systems. New aspects are needed across all aspects of older people's lives, whether in private sphere, public sphere or at work.

Ten years have passed since the National Policy of Older Persons was launched and according to a Seniors World Chronicle report, Mr. Mathew Cherian, Chief Executive, HelpAge India, has opined that the implementation has been very poor. On his part, Mr. Wasnik, Head of the National Council for Older Persons, has admitted that the task ahead is massive but that a lot can be achieved with the involvement of civil society.


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