Chinese society helps elderly cross "digital divide"

GUANGZHOU, Nov. 6 (Xinhua) — The first real obstacle Wang Jiaxiang, 70, encountered after leaving his village to stay in a Chinese metropolis with his son was a virtual one.

After arriving in Guangzhou, capital of south China’s Guangdong Province, the villager from the southwestern province of Guizhou was told urbanites now use mobile applications to run most of their daily errands.

However, Wang could not figure out how to use those “colorful icons” on his smartphone to make an appointment with a doctor, reserve train tickets, order takeouts, or hail a taxi.

Wang once asked his son to teach him how to book a train ticket through the phone but failed to complete the complex steps due to “poor eyesight and fading memory.” After several attempts, Wang gave up as his son “became impatient.”

“In a big city, it seems everything is done with a smartphone, which is too difficult for me. I can only use the voice chat function on WeChat (an instant messaging app in China),” Wang said.

Wang is not alone in China’s rapidly greying society. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the population aged over 60 had amounted to 254 million in China by the end of 2019. It is estimated that more than 100 million of them are not using internet.

The COVID-19 epidemic further highlighted the elderly’s predicament, with digital technologies playing a significant role in the anti-virus battle. From the universal use of health codes to restaurants replacing menus with QR codes to booming e-commerce, tech innovation was in full throttle.

In order to tackle this digital divide, many Chinese cities have swung into action.

During the National Day holiday in early October, the Wuxi railway station in east China’s Jiangsu Province opened a passage for those without a digital health code. This act of facilitating elderly travelers won applause.

In southwest China’s Sichuan Province, local authorities instructed hospitals to set up a dedicated channel for the elderly so they can queue up to register, see a doctor, and pay the fees without the use of smartphones.

Meanwhile, in Lecong Township of Foshan City, Guangdong Province, social workers have been helping the elderly overcome technology-related problems. Classes on using smartphones, held every Tuesday in local communities, have become highly popular among elderly residents.

“Many old people are eager to catch up with the growing digital society,” said Chen Zhihui, a community worker in Lecong and an instructor of the smartphone course. She said many aged residents feel reluctant to disturb their busy children and prefer to seek help from the community.

Chen teaches the use of WeChat, Douyin (the Chinese version of TikTok) and navigation apps as part of the training course. She often starts by presenting the apps’ instructions in large fonts to help the elderly understand.

“The learning progress can be plodding because old people need to go over the contents several times to remember them,” Chen said. “Functions that are easily comprehensible for young users need to be repeated four to five times for older learners to retain.”

Xie Kundi, 70, believes the classes are rewarding. After learning to master their smartphones, Xie and her husband became fond of traveling and made music albums out of the pictures taken during the trips. They shared their “works” in the family WeChat group and were delighted to receive “likes” from other family members.

Ouyang Zhijie, secretary-general of the Guangdong Ruizhi Social Work Service Center, called for joint societal efforts to narrow this digital divide.

“Government departments must make their digital services friendly to the elderly. They must retain manual and face-to-face service channels. APP developers should provide elderly-friendly versions for elderly users,” he said.

Sun Yang, a social worker in Guangzhou, said young family members should bear more patience and enthusiasm when teaching the elderly new technology so that they can better adapt to changes in social life.

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