Singapore

The Big Read: Feeling lost in a digital world, some elderly shun technology

From right, Madam Chin Siew Jin, 72, Madam Tan Kim Huat, 76 and Madam Tan Tiow Huay, 70, with their no-frills mobile phones. Even as society surges ahead with technology, there is a segment of the population here which is still grappling with the ever-widening digital divide. Chief among this group is the elderly. Photo: Jason Quah/TODAY
Madam Mary Wong, 68 (right) and Madam Ong Ham Chaw, 74. Tampines resident Madam Wong has a mobile phone but she leaves it at home as she does not like “disturbances” or “nonsense” messages. Photo: Jason Quah/TODAY
Published: 10:45 PM, July 28, 2017
Updated: 5:16 PM, August 21, 2017

SINGAPORE — Despite spending all her life in Singapore, Madam Yang, 59, often feels “lost” in a wired-up society seemingly fuelled by technology on steroids.

She struggles to understand terms such as “blogging” and “browsers”, and has not heard of Instagram or Twitter. She has a Facebook account because “everyone was on it” and she wanted to see what the fuss was about. However, she hardly logs on, and she is clueless about how to change her profile picture. From time to time, she enjoys reading the discussions on websites which she chances across- for example, on the City Harvest Church court case - but she frets over how to post comments and join in the conversations.

The tuition teacher is bemused about why youngsters want to be “always on the go”, and need instant gratification. Why do they have to book their taxis through apps when it is “just a few minutes’ difference” compared with flagging down a cab on the streets, she wondered. When her computer broke down, she let it “collect dust” till it became a “white elephant” at home. “It’s good that everything is so efficient and fast… But it might result in impatience when you don’t have this technology. Why can’t (people) just slow down?” lamented Madam Yang, who did not provide her full name.

School canteen vendor Mr Lin Kheng Hock, 68, shares such sentiments. He finds himself living in a “crazy world” where the younger generation is so over-reliant on their smart devices, to the point of obsession. “Now, so much time is spent on your handphones… If one day you lose it, everything will go haywire, and you go haywire … It’s as if you’re at a loss… I find that it’s a crazy world,” he said.

Tampines resident Madam Mary Wong, 68, has a mobile phone but she leaves it at home as she does not like “disturbances” or “nonsense” messages. Sometimes when she gets random overseas calls, she would turn off the phone for one or two days, to “make sure there are no calls”, she said. “I know we are behind times, and every time we go out, people say ‘don’t be so stupid, must catch up with the times’… But my answer is I’ll just (let it be).”

Retiree resident Madam Chin Siew Jin, 72, felt that technology is making the younger generation “very lazy”. “Now, you can do almost everything on your phone… There are lifts everywhere, escalators replacing stairs, and even people buying motorised wheelchairs even though they can walk,” she said in Mandarin.

Singapore is among one of the most wired countries in the world. Like everywhere else, consumers here are going through a digital and technology revolution - driven by the proliferation of smart devices. These days, there is a mobile application for almost everything imaginable. Among other things, a person can book a cab, order food, buy a movie ticket, shop for groceries, scour for travel deals, track fitness levels, and arrange for laundry cleaning using apps - all at one’s finger tips.

Yet even as society surges ahead, there is a segment of the population here which is still plodding behind, grappling with the ever-widening digital divide. Chief among this group is the elderly. While technology advancements have not only improved creature comforts for the elderly but also enhanced healthcare and mobility for this group, there is some concern that in the rush towards technology, greater reach and higher productivity, services provided by companies and the Government do not end up elbowing out the elderly, leaving them unable to access the services.

As it is, many seniors have to rely on others, including their children or more tech-savvy peers, to navigate the increasingly digitised environment. TODAY’s readers have written in on several occasions on the perennial issue, voicing the need to ensure the elderly are not left behind in Singapore’s march towards becoming a Smart Nation.

National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser said the divide boils down to low or lack of literacy among some of the older folks. Compared to the young, they are more likely to be daunted by a steep learning curve, and fear of making mistakes, he said. He cautioned that the digital divide could contribute to a growing “sense of alienation and helplessness” for some elderly, although they could still get by with their daily lives without much fuss.

Mr Simon Kuah, 68, can identify with this. Every morning, he makes his way to the Chinatown MRT station where he is on his feet for several hours, handing out flyers to the crowds. In the afternoon, he takes a break with friends at the nearby hawker centre, before continuing to distribute the flyers during evening rush hour. By 7pm, he heads home to his one-room rental flat in Boon Keng. To keep his phone bills small, he pops by the nearest McDonald’s to tap on the free WiFi to use Whatsapp to chat with his friends. To while the nights away, he tunes into the radio, or television to get his fix of news.

To him and many of his peers, life has not changed all that much - the digital and technology revolution, as well as all its bells and whistles are just distractions.

APPREHENSION TOWARDS MOBILE TRANSACTIONS

These days, most people would hardly think twice before whipping up their phones to book a cab, watch a video clip, or make a banking transaction. For some elderly however, doing so evokes trepidation.

Cleaner Pakiam Krishnan Nair, 69, who lives in a one-room rental flat in Sin Ming, recounted how she had to fork out nearly S$150 in her phone bills after watching some Indian dramas on YouTube. “I’m scared that if I link my bank account to my phone, I’ll get confused and maybe make some (payments accidentally),” she said.

Seniors whom TODAY spoke to said they tend to steer well clear of mobile banking and online shopping for example. Many of them said they would rather spend time queueing at bank branches to carry out a simple banking transaction, than to learn to use mobile or Internet banking. Their reluctance stems from a fear of being scammed or accidentally racking up exorbitant purchases as they are unfamiliar with using the apps or websites. Likewise, they are strangers to ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Grab. Most of them mainly use public transport as it is cheaper and they are so used to it. When the need arises, their children would help them book a ride using the apps.

Madam Tang Siew Tin, 67, insists on flagging down a taxi on the streets the old fashioned way, as she perceives that some older cabbies would be affected if all customers resort to app bookings. “(The apps) affect people’s rice bowls, take away their business from them,” she said.

Others like 69-year-old retiree John Ong said that since he has plenty of time on his hands, it was unnecessary to use ride-hailing apps to save time. The Redhill resident makes a daily trip to fetch his six-year-old grandson from River Valley, and drops by places like Chinatown to visit his friends. “I don’t think it’s very inconvenient,” he said.

Madam Grace Lee, 60, who works part-time in a construction firm, admits that she would be curious about sponsored Facebook posts on clothes for instance. Nevertheless, she still prefers shopping in person. “Maybe if you buy online, it may not be what you like, and you have to go back and exchange it… It’s too troublesome,” she said.

In contrast, there seems to be greater appetite among the elderly for communication and entertainment-related apps. Most of the seniors interviewed said they use these often.

Retiree Madam Chan Ai, 71, said that after watching recipe videos on YouTube on her recently-bought iPhone 7, she has expanded her culinary repertoire by experimenting with making food such as banana bread and carrot cake. She also learnt how to wrap bak zhang (glutinous rice dumplings) from YouTube, she said.

Madam Chan also trawls through the Internet for health-related tips, such as which pressure points of the body to massage, for instance. “Everything is so easy to search,” said Madam Chan, whose go-to tech guy is her ten-year-old grandson.

Retiree Ellie Teo, 62, is another senior who is making use of the Internet to hone a skill. After learning how to play the ukulele in 2015, she has downloaded chords and tuner apps so that she practise during her free time.

She noted how it is easy to fall behind the technology curve after leaving the workplace. For one, she can no longer run to her old company’s information technology department for help. “But it’s about taking an interest to learn new things,” she said.

She is thankful for Whatsapp which has made easier for her to talk to her friends using the group chat function, for example. She also recounted how she was pleasantly surprised when an old friend who moved abroad about a decade ago sent her a Whatsapp message. “I don’t know how he managed to find my number… but It’s (amazing) how he can just contact me and for free,” she said.

Some like Madam Ong Soo Hoon, 59, who runs the Rainbow Dessert stall at Chong Pang Food Centre, even uses the Internet to monitor the latest dessert fads in Taiwan and China. “It’s a way of keeping up with what’s trendy, and to see how we can make our desserts different from theirs,” she said in Mandarin.

BUSINESSES MINDFUL NOT TO ALIENATE ELDERLY

Despite the need to innovate and keep up with technological trends, businesses which spoke to TODAY said they are mindful about the needs of the older generation, and have also devoted resources to help the elderly learn how to use digital platforms.

In August 2013, Singapore’s largest cinema chain Golden Village (GV) started by introducing the automated ticketing machine at GV Vivocity. Today, there are 33 such machines, with at least one in each cinema.

At GV Yishun and GV Vivocity, ticketing counters have been fully replaced with the machines but patrons can get help from customer service counters if needed.

Responding to TODAY’s queries, a GV spokesperson acknowledged that customers were “initially intimidated” by the machines. To encourage the patrons to use the machines, it has deployed “ambassadors” to help those having difficulty using the machines, and screened instructional videos.

It also tweaked the design of the machines after receiving feedback that the touch-screen was positioned too high, especially for the elderly. “Our automated ticketing machines have gone through several rounds of improvements and we have seen customers, including many seniors, completely at ease when purchasing their tickets through (the machines),” the spokesperson said.

At NTUC FairPrice supermarkets, self-checkout counters have been installed at 63 outlets since the launch of the system in 2011. A FairPrice spokesperson noted that these were piloted in stores at areas with office crowds and younger households. “However, as customers became more familiar with the system, we introduced them to more stores and customers from all walks of life and age groups have started to use the system as well,” the spokesperson said.

The supermarket chain has run several public education campaigns, and attendants are “readily available to show any seniors how to use the system and assist them with their purchase”, the spokesperson added.

Ms Susan Cheong, head of POSB, said the bank has been “actively reaching out to empower the elderly” on self-service and digital banking since 2012. “Since the cessation of 2G mobile phones, we have also widened the scope to empower the elderly with information on cashless payment options,” she said, noting that over a fifth of its elderly customer segment - categorised as those above 50 years old - have access to Internet and mobile banking.

For example, under the POSB Active Neighbours programme, seniors are appointed as “digital ambassadors” who proactively share tips and information on digital banking at the bank’s branches and events. The bank has also included digital literacy topics for the elderly in the People’s Association (PA) Senior Academy Smart Nation Programme. “Through these initiatives, the elderly gain more confidence and knowledge in adopting digital banking services,” Ms Cheong said.

Launched in February 2015, the PA Senior Academy seeks to encourage seniors aged 50 and above to pursue lifelong learning. So far, more than 12,000 people have benefitted from the academy’s various courses, PA said.

The courses span from an Advanced Certificate in Senior Wellness programme, geared at areas including health and wellness, food and beverage, as well as handicraft making.

The Seniors for Smart Nation programme was launched in March last year. It teaches seniors basic IT literacy skills including how to use WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram, for instance.

From November, there will also be a new four-month structured Certificate in Seniors for Smart Nation programme where participants can take up to 10 core and elective IT-related courses. Under this new programme, which was announced on Friday (Jul 28) by PA, seniors will learn simple coding skills, how to use social media, and carry out online transaction safely, for example. They will also learn about cyber security and basic digital marketing, among other topics.

In March, the Singapore Standards Council launched new guidelines on user interface design for older adults. Some of the recommendations include using at least a 12-point font on a 15-inch screen — slightly larger than the length of an iPad Pro — and for fonts to be scaled according to the size of the user’s device.

Websites should also be easy to navigate, such as by using buttons that, ideally, cover the width of the screen so that seniors will have no trouble selecting them. The guidelines also suggest providing users who are struggling to navigate the online space different ways of asking for help, such as by recording their queries on video.

Speaking at the launch event, Chua Chu Kang GRC Member of Parliament Zaqy Mohamad, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for communications and information, urged the Government to take the lead in adopting the new standard.

“As Singapore progresses towards the vision of a Smart Nation, it is important that we address the ‘silver digital divide’, where our elderly may not be able to access new products and services,” he said.

On its part, the Government runs a slew of initiatives to help senior embrace technology. For example, an annual Silver IT Fest is organised by the Infocomm and Media Development Authority, institutes of higher learning, industry and community partners. Intergenerational IT bootcamps have also been organised where students teach seniors basic computer and Internet skills, among other things.

HELPING SENIORS STEP OUT OF THEIR COMFORT ZONE

Sociologists urged organisations not to neglect the needs of the elderly, and bear in mind that the segment comprises individuals of varying education levels and tech-savviness.

Dr Kang Soon-Hock from the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), said companies must not adopt a one size fits all mentality. For example, the baby boomers may be more open to embracing new technology compared with the pre-baby boomer generation, he said. Businesses should stick with the status quo while at the same time, offer new options to early adopters.

“(This) will allow those groups of elderly who are savvy with technology to take the first step…. (while) having the existing option available will allow those who are unsure, more time to test and accept the new technology before taking the leap. If businesses adopt such strategies, they will eventually benefit from a better rate of technology adoption,” said Dr Kang.

Professor Kalyani K Mehta, head of programme (Master of Gerontology) at SUSS, was concerned that less educated seniors could end up “marginalised” because of their lack of computer literacy skills.

More seniors should be encouraged to attend computer and software training, she said. Peer encouragement and support go a long way in shaping the elderly’s attitudes towards technology, she said. She noted that a recent research project conducted by her school found that older people feared that they would damage the computers, or “lose face” if they ask questions during training classes. Family members and friends should be patient in teaching elders how to operate the technological tools and “refrain from belittling them”, she added.

Dr Tan, from NUS, pointed out that many devices and apps can also be made more accessible and user-friendly for the elderly via audiovisual features.

Ultimately, the elderly has much to gain from embracing new technology. For example, Dr Kang pointed out that technology can help them become more independent.

For that to happen, some seniors may have to first shed their disdain for technology, after witnessing the younger generation’s obsession with smart devices.

Madam Teo ranks it as one of her biggest pet peeves to see youngsters “being glued to their phones” while their food is left untouched in front of them on the dinner table. “I’ve seen so many young people meddling with their phone, watching movies while eating… They don’t know how to relax. It’s as if they will be very bored without their phones,” she said.

Madam Chan added: “These days, everyone is using their phone… there’s less interaction and communication… you lose a lot of that warmth.”

But the younger generation can do its part too - by being more patient with the seniors as they try and step out of their comfort zone.

Recounting her friends’ experiences, Madam Lee said: “When they try to download certain apps, and just ask a few questions, the tone from their (children) changes, they get very impatient or start shouting…. That’s why the elderly may feel like withdrawing and not want to learn anymore… Somebody must have the patience to teach them.”