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Technology use and vulnerability among seniors in Sweden during Covid


Authors: Linnea Öhlund
Posted: Wed, January 20, 2021 - 2:20:00

From its place of origin, Wuhan, China, the coronavirus has spread worldwide and infected millions of people. Countries have adopted various strategies to curb the spread of the virus, social isolation being one. Sweden is one of few countries that has never closed down entirely but instead has relied on individuals' own responsibility in taking adequate precautions and following recommendations. A part of the strategy has been to recommend that individuals over the age of 70 physically isolate and not have any unnecessary social contact with others to protect themselves from the virus. Despite the many criticisms of the Swedish Covid-19 strategy, many seniors living at home have followed the recommendations of isolating themselves from any non-vital social and physical interaction.

A common way of thinking of this group is that they don't use, don’t want to use, or can't use technology, and that if they simply could use it, many aspects of their life would be improved [1]. This is nowadays somewhat of a preconception, but a study from 2020 found that 87 percent of Swedish people age 66 and up use the Internet. The current global situation of Covid-19 presents a golden opportunity to find out if seniors are using digital technology in ways that help them face negative consequences of isolation, and, more generally, if they have started using technology in a more socially connecting way. With these thoughts in mind, I set out to interview 15 people over the age of 70 living in Sweden. In this blog post, I present a summary of the results of those discussions and discuss how participant demographics, vulnerability, and not using or overusing technology can all be factors that play into the results.

Participant demographics
The ages of the participants were between 69 and 81. Half of them were married, living with a partner in a house or big apartment, and about half were single and lived in an apartment. Participants were contacted through email (due to Covid), which told me in advance that they most likely owned some digital artifact and have enough knowledge to navigate it. They were all young enough to have been working with computers and technology for a substantial part of their working life, which has provided them with knowledge and experience. Most of the participants had a university education. This information tells us that they come from a particular socio-economic background, which means that they have previous knowledge to understand digital technology and presumed capital to buy it. I present the results in the following three categories; the demographics of the participants will be a resurfacing pattern.

Feeling vulnerable in society
During the interviews, despite no question being directly asked about vulnerability, many felt that in Swedish society today, seniors are not treated nicely. Especially now during Covid, many thought they have been labeled vulnerable in a negative sense, and that other age groups, but predominately younger individuals (15 to 35), would be disrespectful and view them with contempt. They felt that the heavy restrictions for individuals 70 and over had not only protected them but also stigmatized them further.

Technology use
I was a little surprised to find that all of the seniors in the study used digital technology daily. They all had smartphones, computers, tablets, and multiple apps such as Facebook, digital banks, Wordfeud, and newspapers. Although not all of them felt particularly skilled or even interested in technology, all of them had a certain type of confidence regarding technology that little previous research mentions. After some discussions, the participants admitted that they played Wordfeud longer, scrolled Facebook more, and made more video calls, but many said they didn't do this more than normal.

Experiencing further negative feelings by using technology
All participants used technology, but some still felt socially isolated and lonely. In some cases, participants even felt that using technology made them feel sadder and more isolated because they would remember how life was before. Most of the participants also mentioned family or friends who did not use technology and felt left out of society. Many felt frustrated that digital change is happening at such a fast pace in Sweden. This quick change is casting a shadow over a specific part of society, mostly related to age. Some individuals do not have the experience from their work-life that allows them to use technology, nor do they have the means to buy technology. According to some of the participants, the individuals who cannot or will not use technology are therefore left out from many options that would have given them a better quality of life.

Discussion
Even though technology can serve as a tool to connect with friends and family, using it does not automatically give you a socially isolated, happy life, free of negative feelings. Many seniors already use technology to a large extent. Still, in periods of isolation, negative feelings seem to increase. Using technology to attempt to curb these negative feelings already seems to be done by many seniors. But overusing technology for longer periods also appears to render more negative emotions, because it is forced upon them and not chosen. Furthermore, in Swedish society, despite many seniors being tech-savvy, many are left out because they do not use digital technology, which means not having the same opportunities for a higher quality of life as others.

This study and the results from it can be further summarized in four takeaways related to seniors as a vulnerable group, their demographics, and their use of technology when trying to create a better quality of life for themselves. These four points may provide further insight into seniors as a vulnerable group and specifically this type of demographic:

  • The Covid crisis has meant that seniors have faced further stigmatization in society. They feel like they are being pointed out as a problem and not respected because they may face many negative consequences from Covid-19.
  • Many seniors under the age of 80 have extensive knowledge of digital technologies and systems and use them daily without critical challenges.
  • The usage of technology has gone up slightly during this Covid period to make up for the lost contact with others, but feelings of loss and sadness remain.
  • Overusing technology can create further negative feelings, but not using digital technology at all means being left out of society and missing out on opportunities that could generate a better quality of life. The reasons for not using technology today may be linked to not having enough experience to understand it or enough money to buy it.

Endnotes 

1. Khosravi, P., Rezvani, A., and Wiewiora, A. The impact of technology on older adults’ social isolation. Computers in Human Behavior 63, (2016), 594–603; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2016.05.092


Posted in: Covid-19 on Wed, January 20, 2021 - 2:20:00

Linnea Öhlund

Linnea Öhlund is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Informatics at Umeå University, with a focus on interaction design, vulnerable groups, and social justice. linnea.ohlund@umu.se
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@cookie clicker (2021 06 13)

Good idea! Like you