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Malaysia launched an initiative to better understand how older people use tech. Here’s what they learned.

Reinvigorating elderly populations in the post Covid-19 era through digital inclusion

Malaysian researchers find the elderly are eager to embrace technology, if given the chance

By Maniam Kaliannan, Associate Professor, School of Business, University of Nottingham, Malaysia

Global populations are aging. By 2050, 16% of the world’s people will be over 65, compared to just 11% in 2019. (UN, 2020).

Malaysia is no exception. In 2020 it officially reached “aging society” status after its over-65 population hit 7.2%, just above the UN’s 7% threshold.

Aging populations start to be seen as a burden on society when the share of its working-age population starts to decline. Partly as a consequence, there is now a global push for greater civic participation of senior citizens in social, economic, and political life. Older people armed with years of knowledge, skills and experience are encouraged to take part in public policy formulation and inter-generational activities – which can also enhance their quality of life. Research indicates that participation in civic activities boost physical and mental health, increasing cognitive function, and even help people live longer.

Tech-savvy seniors
Research also suggests that age is not a barrier to embracing digital technology. In fact, many elderly people are more eager to use ICT following the pandemic, which severely restricted social mobility. Aging populations experienced depression and mental disorders linked to prolonged isolation. Being connected online can help.

Malaysia launched an initiative to better understand the experiences and behaviors of older people with a view to reinvigorating elderly populations in the post-COVID 19 era through digital inclusion strategies. Researchers used focus groups, expert interviews with policy makers and caregivers, a short pilot experiment on digital literacy, and surveys of 418 respondents in urban and semi-urban areas.  

The focus group interviews were directed towards policymakers, development practitioners, caregivers, caregiving institutions, social activists, and volunteers. This approach is illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Integrated Dragonfly Model and Sociological and Behavioral Theory Models

WhatsApp, Doc?
The research showed that a significant proportion of older people own either a smartphone or mobile phone, but mainly just for communication. Of this number, only a small number of senior citizens actively use tools like WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Video Calls and TikTok. Those who did use those tools did so mainly to seek information on health, travel, religion, and online shopping.

The study showed that public policies and programs aimed at improving digital lifestyle and digital literacy among senior citizens are very limited, unlike the public resources being directed at improving connectivity infrastructure. Yet evaluation suggested participants were eager to learn more. 

Model behavior
The main findings from the study relate to the evident disparity between IT-savvy and non-IT-savvy older people. This gap should be bridged through public policies, continuous digital infrastructure development, training, and coaching for digital skills.

The findings and recommendations are summarised in the table below.

Figure 2 : The Digital Inclusion Partnership Model

Based on the social, economic, and governance elements of the Dragonfly Model, we proposed an action plan through the Digital Inclusion Partnership Model (see Figure 2). We recommend that the government champion a policy for the elderly that reinforces digital skills, funds training and activities, invests in the digital infrastructure of public buildings, and supports and strengthens activity centres for older people.

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