Digital ambassadors help seniors with PCs and cell phones

To get older people in particular up to speed on computers and the Internet: That is the task of the so-called DigiBos. Minister Schweitzer wants to expand the project and thus increase citizens’ participation in the digital world.

Birgit Pfirrmann likes to compare the file folders on the computer desktop with suitcases that can hold several travel bags. When dealing with the smartphone, the 64-year-old points first and foremost to the home button: “No matter where you get lost, you can always start over with it.” The retiree from the Palatinate is one of 338 digital ambassadors – DigiBos for short – in Rhineland-Palatinate.

What exactly are digital ambassadors supposed to do?

The volunteers’ goal is to support older people in particular in using tablets, notebooks, computers and smartphones – to promote their digital skills. The project, which began in 2018, is being further expanded and is also attracting interest in other German states, says Digitization and Social Affairs Minister Alexander Schweitzer.

“The DigiBos are older people who are passionate, fun and focused on the web,” reports the SPD politician. “The target of 300 DigiBos by 2023 has already been exceeded.” In each of the 24 districts and 12 independent cities, he said, the volunteer specialists already exist. “With further qualifications, we want to attract even more digital ambassadors.” Schweitzer promises, “We continued the program beyond 2023 – until the end of the legislative period.”

The need for digital ambassadors is huge

Pfirrmann is delighted with this announcement. The demand is huge,” says Pfirrmann, who has been involved since the very beginning and has already answered questions about the digital world or shown people how to access it during more than 2,000 visits to the DigiBo meeting place in Landau. Although the oldest visitor was 93 years old, many are much younger, some just half that age.

Many people in their early 50s are at a loss when it comes to using notebooks, tablets, smartphones and computers and have no one to ask their questions, the digital ambassador reports. “I’m sometimes amazed that even 40- or 45-year-olds can hardly do anything with their cell phones besides WhatsApp and making phone calls, and don’t think about the fact that the person they’re talking to has to be online when they make a WhatsApp call.”

The DigiBos are 69 years old on average; 41 percent of them are women, according to the Ministry of Digitization in Mainz. Its more than 3,000 offerings nationwide so far – PC, smartphone and tablet meetings as well as home visits – are also predominantly used by women, it said. Two-thirds of the participants are older than 70. 97 percent have little or no experience with digital media.

“We will always have people who are left behind,” Pfirrmann notes. Technical development, he says, is simply too rapid. That’s why the five DigiBos in Landau are also looking for so-called digital natives to strengthen their team – members of the generations that have grown up with tablets and smartphones. “We all keep up to date, but the younger generation has grown up differently.” Often, older people also simply don’t understand the language of the digital world. “We also see ourselves as translators.”

“85-year-olds have often not experienced digitization in their own professional lives and have a harder time accessing it than digital natives who are 25 and younger,” notes Minister Schweitzer. “The higher the age, the greater the likelihood that digital participation has not been developed.” Studies have shown that. “But there are also 85-year-olds who are digitally on the go and 25-year-olds who are struggling.”

Entire population groups excluded from access

However, age and profession are far from the only reasons why people are excluded – or feel excluded – from the digital world with its numerous possibilities. “There are entire population groups that do not have access to digitalization,” Schweitzer notes. “One limit is a household income of less than 1,500 euros per month.” In addition, he says, there are fears and inhibitions. “Digitization concerns everyone, but it can only be successful if many people recognize the benefits,” Schweitzer emphasizes. “Participation in resources is the essence of democracy.”

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“There are incredible fears,” Pfirrmann also reports. “Not only among older people.” These are often reinforced by their own children, he adds. “You’re not allowed to do that!” or “You wouldn’t understand that anyway!”, Pfirrmann cites as typical examples. “They then come to us with senior cell phones that have all the functions turned off.” Many children and grandchildren also simply take hold of their parents’ and grandparents’ cell phones quickly when something is unclear and perform the desired action without explanation. “You don’t learn anything in the process,” says Pfirrmann, who herself experiences “enormous gratitude” from the participants in her meetings.