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How Automation is Leaving the Elderly Behind and What Can Be Done About It

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Oak Tree Team

15th September, 2023

illustration of an elderly person standing on a large building sized laptop. Text reads: The Elderly & the Challenges of Daily Automation

In the digital age, everyday tasks are increasingly moving to online only - as businesses search to make efficiencies and cost savings. But is this transition at the detriment of its older, less accessible customers? While online banking has made managing finances a breeze for tech-savvy users, the closure of hundreds of high street branches is greatly impacting the elderly and less-able - and not for the better. This digital transformation isn't limited to banking. The phasing out of manned train station offices in favour of automated ticketing platforms, and the replacement of traditional parking meters with phone-to-pay services, further compounds the challenges faced by older generations.

While these changes undoubtedly bring efficiency and cost savings, they also pose significant hurdles for seniors, many of whom are grappling with both the learning curve of new technology and the feelings of isolation that can come from reduced human interaction. 

With this in mind, Oak Tree Mobility has conducted research to understand how daily automation impacts the elderly, and what are the potential challenges and opportunities.

Transportation and Automation: The Roadblocks Ahead

E-ticketing in transportation sectors from airlines to local buses has significantly streamlined the user experience. According to Statista, younger demographics are extensively benefitting from online purchasing, including event tickets. However, the data highlights a stark divide: older populations are not adopting e-ticketing at the same pace, leaving them at a disadvantage. In a world where paper tickets are becoming relics, this is not just an issue of convenience but of accessibility.

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This September, The Rail Delivery Group announced that there will be around 1,000 ticket offices closing at stations across the UK, leaving facilities only at the busiest stations. All London ticket offices will be closing, with the exceptions of Blackfriars, East Croydon, Finsbury Park, London Victoria, and Sutton. This shift towards automation could have significant implications for the elderly, who may rely on in-person services and might find automated systems challenging to navigate.

A reason given for this shift is that only 12% of tickets are currently purchased at ticket offices. Yet, of the 1.4 billion journeys from April 2022 to March 2023, 168 million were still being purchased through ticket office transactions. It’s expected that a significant portion of these in-person buyers likely consists of the elderly, individuals with disabilities, or those with intricate questions. For many, interacting with and purchasing tickets directly from a staff member remains crucial. These offices are more than mere transactional points; they embody accessibility, a personal touch, and inclusivity in the realm of travel. To maintain a transportation system that is truly comprehensive, accommodating, and user-centric, it's vital to cater to all, not just the technologically adept.

Automated parking systems, which allow for advance booking through apps, allow for quick and efficient parking for many. Yet, councils are being urged not to force elderly citizens into using these platforms. This caution emanates from the risk of alienating those who may find traditional parking meters easier to navigate. 

A recent survey by the BBC reviewed data from 244 councils in England that oversee parking management. Of the 242 councils which either had data available online or responded to inquiries, eight councils had eliminated their pay and display machines, while an additional 14 councils had reduced the number of these machines in their areas. 

The transition towards digital parking solutions, although innovative, brings to the forefront potential inclusivity concerns. While digital systems offer benefits like reduced maintenance and better integration with digital services, they inadvertently challenge certain segments of society, especially the elderly. Approximately 22% of people aged 65 and over, equating to 2.7 million individuals, don't use the internet at all. Among those elderly who do, over half (52%) are 'narrow users', confining their online interactions to a limited set of activities.

For many seniors, navigating mobile apps or SMS-based payment systems isn't just a matter of unfamiliarity. Physical limitations, such as dry skin affecting touch screen responsiveness, or cognitive challenges like subjective cognitive decline, can make these digital interfaces particularly daunting. Such barriers can lead to increased parking violations due to non-payment or errors in the payment process. Moreover, by moving away from traditional machines, we eliminate the chance for face-to-face assistance, potentially deepening feelings of alienation. As technology continues to evolve, it must remain accessible and inclusive, ensuring no one is inadvertently left behind.

The Shift to Online Banking

Over the past decade, there's been a decline in the number of traditional banks and building society branches in the nation. Banks are disappearing from the high street at a rapid rate as customers are pushed to manage their money online. Data from Which? Found that banks or building societies have closed or are scheduled to close 5,838 branches, around 54 each month, since 2015. In 2023 a massive 661 branches have been announced as due to shut in the next year. 

Age UK's Ipsos poll provides a revealing insight into banking preferences among the elderly. While 58% of seniors have adapted to online banking, 27% remain dependent on physical branches or alternatives like Post Offices. This dependency intensifies with age; with 58% of individuals aged 85 and above preferring face-to-face banking interactions and 75% of those aged 65+ wish to conduct transactions in person at branches. 

illustration of older man and woman next to a large phone and credit card. Text reads: 31% of over 65s said they were uncomfortable with the idea of banking online.

Highlighting the gravity of the situation, the Financial Conduct Authority's data shows that a staggering 2.4 million seniors largely rely on cash for daily transactions. This reliance on cash isn't exclusive to the elderly; it's also crucial for low-income individuals and those with mental health challenges, maintaining its position as the second most common retail payment mode.

Yet, amidst this shift to digital, the Ipsos survey rings alarm bells as it reveals that 31% of respondents aged 65 and above are apprehensive about managing their finances online. This unease is not just about technology. Digital platforms, devoid of human interaction, lack the personal touch many older adults cherish. Dealing with a familiar bank representative offers not only tailored services but also a comforting sense of security. For many, visiting a bank branch goes beyond banking; it's a social engagement, a human connection that digital platforms cannot emulate.


Bridging the Gap

As automation continues to weave its way into various facets of modern life, it's crucial to proactively address the challenges and setbacks older generations might face. By employing thoughtful measures, we can foster an environment where technological progress uplifts everyone, irrespective of age.

Lifelong Learning Programs: Tailored training programs for older adults can demystify emerging technologies, helping them transition smoothly into an automated environment. Moreover, flexible learning platforms that allow seniors to learn at their own pace and comfort can bridge the existing skills gap, making them active participants in the digital age.

Inclusive Design: Automation technologies must adopt a universal design approach. By ensuring that tools, platforms, and interfaces are intuitive and user-friendly for all age groups, we can minimise the barriers to adoption. Considering factors like visibility, ergonomics, and simplicity in design can significantly benefit older users.

Social Connection Initiatives: The rise of automation should not spell the decline of human interaction. We must prioritise initiatives that encourage face-to-face engagements and community participation. Organizing tech cafes, where older generations can come together to learn and share about new technologies, or promoting intergenerational tech mentorship programs, can create a sense of community and shared learning.

Financial Inclusion: Older generations, particularly those on fixed incomes, might feel the economic pinch if they cannot access or leverage automated solutions. Financial literacy programs that focus on teaching seniors about online banking, digital investments, and e-commerce can ensure they are not financially sidelined in the automated era.

Emphasizing Mental Health: The psychological implications of feeling 'left behind' can be daunting. Mental health programs that address the emotional and psychological challenges of adapting to rapid technological changes can be instrumental in ensuring the well-being of seniors.

By addressing these focal areas, we can foster a more inclusive, supportive, and comprehensive approach to automation that serves everyone's needs, ensuring that older generations are neither overshadowed nor sidelined.

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Verity Kick at Oak Tree Mobility comments, “Automation is undoubtedly a game-changer. It's like the next step in our journey of making tasks easier and faster. But for some, especially our elders, it feels more like a sudden leap than a gentle step. Many of them grew up in a world where a conversation, a handshake, or a friendly face at the counter made the difference.

There's something special about human interaction. It's the reassurance in someone's voice, the patience in their explanation, or just the comfort of being understood. Moreover, from a perspective of social interaction, automation often strips the nuances and warmth of the human touch. While automation is quick and efficient, it doesn't always "get" us the way another person does.

Additionally, we must remember that not everyone has the technical knowledge or ability to navigate these automated systems. As we embrace newer tech, it's essential to keep it user-friendly and approachable. We should think about our grandparents or elderly neighbours, and even those who might need support from a less able or disabled perspective when we're designing or adopting new systems. Maybe even have a chat with them, understand what they find tricky, and use that feedback. It's crucial to provide the necessary tools and training so they don't feel left out.

If we're saying technology is the future, it should be a future where everyone, irrespective of their age or ability, feels included and at ease.”

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