Can we teach old folks new tricks as digital age engulfs us?

Yao Minji
Some elderly people just can't keep up with a digital age that requires some tech-savvy to get through daily life.
Yao Minji
Can we teach old folks new tricks as digital age engulfs us?
Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

Patients are required to show their health codes on their mobile phones at all Shanghai hospitals, which is a big challenge for elderly people who aren’t tech-savvy.

Zhang Qun, 66, holds two mobile phones. One is for Shanghai’s health code program that allows him to enter public places if his code says he doesn’t have coronavirus. On the other phone, he’s calling a friend’s daughter to ask for help.

The health code turns inactive if not used for a while, and Zhang has forgotten how to re-register.

The retired president of a company with more than 5,000 employees said he has never felt as helpless as he has in the last few months.

Online grocery shopping, digital health codes, digital identification cards, food delivery services, online reservation for doctors. The increasing dominance of life online can be complicated for many people, but more so for older folks who can’t or won’t use digital services.

“I know we are getting very digitalized in every way,” Zhang told Shanghai Daily. “But it used to be okay for me not to use these digital services and still live my life. Not anymore.”

He added, “The coronavirus pandemic has turned everything online, which was necessary, helpful and safe. But it has made me realize how I may not be as smart as I thought.”

His son lives abroad, making it inconvenient to contact him when he needs help. The few times he did manage to talk to his son, the conversations turned confrontational.

“He kept saying, “Just do what I say.’” Zhang recalled. “I did what he said, but that didn’t work. I know he’s busy. I don’t want to get into fights over such small things. And I felt dumb.”

His “tech-savvy” wife is more than willing to help, but to save face, Zhang doesn’t want her to discover that he can’t remember the code-registration format. But his wife Xu, 65, is indeed savvy.

“I know that my husband is hiding it,” she posted on her WeChat moments. “He’s trying to learn it but can’t. It doesn’t make him dumb. There are those who can and those who can’t catch up with digitalization. We should care for those who can’t.”

Less than 7 percent of China’s 900 million Internet users are 60 years or older. Many don’t own smartphones, while others have no mobile phone at all.

Wang Jianjun, 79, meets old pals in a nearby park every morning to practice tai chi. When he can’t make it, he calls a friend to post a notice to the group or asks his 12-year-old granddaughter to send a message to the group’s chat site.

“Two-thirds of my pals in the group don’t have digital accounts,” he said. “Like me, they use their children’s or their grandchildren’s accounts.”

Wang’s wife died, and his son and daughter-in-law are both away on frequent business trips. His granddaughter helped him buy online tickets for the Shanghai Book Fair and makes online reservations for his regular hospital visits.

“Recently I’ve been thinking about taking a class at my community center to learn how to do all this myself because I don’t want to keep bothering my granddaughter,” Wang said. “But my fingers are big and slow. When they say swipe, I swipe and nothing happens. I’m not sure if I can learn how to do it properly even if I take classes.”

I know we are getting very digitalized in every way. But it used to be okay for me not to use these digital services and still live my life. Not anymore.

Zhang Qun, 66

Like many elderly, Wang has chronic health problems that require frequent trips to the hospital for medicine. He was stunned in February and March when local hospitals barred entry to anyone who didn’t have an online reservation. Gradually, as the pandemic threat eased in Shanghai, he was once again able to enter the hospital, where volunteers would help him with reservations. But that often meant booking for another day and returning.

That is among the most common complaints from elderly people — the difficulty in making online reservations.

The problem hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Shanghai Health Commission, which recently announced a series of measures to make hospital services more convenient for those 70 years or older.

Medical institutions are now required to set up priority windows for the elderly, provide more convenient reservation formats and earmark seats in waiting rooms for older patients.

The commission also said it will step up efforts to improve community and home medical services.

“It’s not just medical reservations,” said Zheng Lei, a professor with the School of International Relations and Public Affairs at Fudan University. “The more advanced digital technology becomes, the wider the ‘digital gap’ for the elderly.”

He added, “We encourage digitalization, but that doesn’t mean those who can’t use it should be abandoned. Service providers need to take that into account. We need warmth in our social services.”

Wang did take one class on how to use mobile phones at his local community center, but he is not sure about continuing now that his hospital has restarted phone reservations that he can make on a landline and may open a priority window soon.

Retired businessman Zhang is secretly watching videos on how to use WeChat, the health code program and car-hailing services. His efforts have not gone unnoticed by his astute wife.

“He thinks I don’t know,” she posted on WeChat. “My husband is catching up with the information age. Good! We have fun playing hide and seek like this. Maybe one day, he will be more tech-savvy than I am!”

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