The government should tackle loneliness amongst the over-65s by training those without the skills to use the internet, a think-tank has recommended.
Spending £875m on educating the 6.2 million people who do not have basic digital skills − the equivalent of £141 per person − would yield “huge” economic and social benefits for the UK, the Policy Exchange said.
“Being able to simply write an email or access a social networking site could provide older people with a way to stay connected”
Around four out of 10 people aged 65 or over do not have access to the internet at home with more than five million never having used the internet, according to a report by the right of centre think-tank.
The number of people aged 85 or over is set to double over the next 20 years, with older people facing a “major challenge” from the risk of isolation, as families move further apart for work, it said.
One in 10 people are estimated to visit their GP because they are lonely, with research suggesting that lonely adults are more likely to undergo emergency hospitalisation and early admission into residential or nursing care, it said.
Tackling isolation could prove to be one of the most effective strategies for countering the rising costs of caring for an ageing population, the think-tank said.
The initial investment in training would be offset by savings of around £1.7bn a year as people moved to digital rather than paper-based and telephone transactions, it added.
Report author Eddie Copeland, the think-tank’s head of technology policy, said: “In an increasingly isolated and fast moving world it is vital that everyone in society is able to use the internet and understand its benefits.
“From alleviating social isolation, bringing together communities, paying bills and now accessing public services, online can improve lives.
“Being able to simply write an email or access a social networking site could provide older people with a way to stay connected to their friends and families, who may live hundreds of miles away.
“Maintaining these important relationships will help an ageing society vulnerable to loneliness and disconnection from a fast-moving modern world.”
Andrew Kaye, head of policy at Independent Age, a charity which offers advice and support to older people and their families, said: “Encouraging and enabling people to go online could be one really useful means of tackling loneliness - but it’s not the only way.
“We musn’t forget that it’s really important older people still have a choice about how they access public services so they are not only available online,” he said.
“To those without technology skills a trip to the local post office or real human contact is just as important.
“We are members of the Keep Me Posted campaign, which wants people to have a choice in how they receive bills and written communication,” he added.