For older people, the internet plays on the part which is in all of us, that is alone and unknown, says Philippa Perry
The question As a retired woman living alone, I felt isolated during the various lockdowns. The answer seemed to be to rely on technology, which was fine when it worked, but it often made me feel more cut off from the world. For example, when I didn’t know how to unmute myself on a video call it was like having locked-in syndrome. Emerging from the pandemic, things are better, except Covid has made technology the way forward and I can’t always get it to work for me.
I’ve been to a pub where I had to forgo lunch because I couldn’t order on the app. I know people who have gone abroad for holidays, but I’ve been too scared to go because of the passenger locator form, which you had to complete online while out of the country (how?). I have a mobile phone I often struggle with – for months I didn’t know how to answer a call, so I had to wait for people to ring off, then I had to call them back.
If I buy a new device it doesn’t even come with a manual to show me how it works. I am drifting further apart from people who use their phones and watches (watches?!) for everything. I don’t feel I belong in this world. And this is unlikely to get better.
Philippa’s answer I also find it a pain in the neck how we must increasingly rely upon technology. I can’t even work my own central heating system and you can’t pay your council tax without having to remember a password. When the internet first arrived, I was quite good, but nothing ever stays still; the word “upgrade” makes me shudder. I’ve got bored of watching YouTube videos trying to update myself. Younger people seem to fiddle and just get on with it intuitively: they’ve grown up with it. We haven’t.
OK, rant over. What can we do about it?
We can remember that learning something new is good for our older brains. And you must give yourself a pat on the back for getting your email to me. You are doing splendidly. You learned how to do that. You can learn more. I know it’s very boring and as soon as you get the hang of one video-conferencing app, they upgrade it, or your group starts to use a different programme and then you must learn it anew. You can do this, though. I can do it, too. We’ve got to.
Go to the computer store. Yell, “SHOP!” (My dad – RIP – used to do this in Woolworths: he didn’t hold with self-service) until an assistant comes to you. Explain that you are from another planet, another generation and you need proper help. This will be hard for them to understand because they are fish and the technology is the water, but persevere.
The brand that calls itself after a piece of fruit actually holds lessons in their store. They call them stores and not shops, I think, because they came over from that new-fangled country, America. Don’t budge until you get the help you need. Don’t stop short of bursting into tears. Let them have it. The great thing about being old is that we can say exactly how we feel and what we want and usually get away with it. I find I must ask for help more than once because I need to be told it a few times and practise it, before it goes in.
But there is something else going on here. There is a part of you (and me, and all of us) destined to remain alone, unseen. This part is usually background – we don’t usually dwell on how only we truly know our own experience of existing. But I think it’s why we need art, fiction and films, because the people who make them are really trying and sometimes hit on something that puts an elusive inchoate feeling into language or images.
I heard somewhere (don’t ask me to find the reference, I’ve lost it) that there is a tribe which when a child is born gives it the name that everyone will call it by, as well as a secret name only known to the child given by the elder of the tribe (who as they are an elder will die soon, so only the child will know it). That secret name stands for your special uniqueness and the part of you only known by you. Whatever and whoever that tribe is, they get it. Because of this feeling of it not being possible for our inner world to be truly known and seen by others, when asked, most people feel that they often believe themselves to be not in the centre of a group, but more towards the edges. And I imagine that if we don’t intuitively understand the new technology that we have increasingly come to rely on during the pandemic, it can exacerbate this feeling.
If we manage to access this article online, I hope people will tell us how to go abroad and come back again in the comments (it’s beyond me, too, I’m looking forward to reading them).
Although you feel you are left behind and destined to aloneness, you are not alone, there is an unseen, unknown part to all of us. We could give it a secret name if we liked. You do belong in this world, but a part of you may sometimes feel that you don’t.
If you have a question, send a brief email to askphilippa@observer.co.uk

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