“Okay, we’ve had enough chat for the day,” my mother tells my sister. “Now, let’s pray.” She picks up the holy book and kneels. So do my sister and her two children. And they start the prayer. “We thank you, dear lord, for all the happiness you’ve showered upon us, and keeping us together always and forever.” My niece Ivanna, a toddler, and nephew John, an impatient young man of eight, smile and giggle as their mother and grandmother continue their prayers separated by almost 13,500 km , but seamlessly connected by almighties God and Google.
Annie Thakkolkkaran Paul, my mother, lives with my father in Kombodinjamakkal village in central Kerala’s Thrissur district, in a small, tiled house that is also home to cute rodents and pesky termites, while my sister Jiksey Jose Palathinkal and her husband Francis and their children live in a neat, roomy apartment in Scarborough, Canada. Thanks to smartphones — and video chat applications such as Google Duo, Skype and WhatsApp, aided by unlimited and affordable 4G data network from internet service providers (ISPs) in their respective countries — the two families ‘meet’ almost every day, and even many times in a day if the mother and daughter so desire. They share recipes, even cook together, pray together and do a lot more, all in real-time.
Smartphone-powered digital revolution is changing the way people work, talk, travel and even think. In fully literate Kerala, which became the country’s first ‘digital’ State last year by taking broadband connectivity to all villages under the National Optical Fibre Network project, data and gadget companies have found an unlikely ally in the State’s over four million senior citizens by enabling them to do things that people of their age couldn’t even dream of barely a decade ago.
“I love Google,” declares Vilasini Narayanan, a 60-something retired government employee from Edakkanam in north Kerala’s Iritty, a hilly region adjoining the Karnataka border. “The Android-phone and Google changed my life like never before,” she says. Using her phone, Vilasini ‘teacher’ regularly video-calls her son in the US and surfs the Web for information needed to pursue her hobby of making small sculptures from waste material. “I’ve found several tutorials on YouTube and similar groups on Facebook,” she says. And it’s the phone she prefers, rather than a desktop. “Sitting in front of the PC is not for the likes of us,” she says.
A State with 33 million people boasts over 30 million mobile phone connections, and the share of smartphones is growing rapidly. About 40 per cent of the population has access to Internet. In other words, nearly 96 out of every 100 Keralites own a phone and nearly 35 have a Web connection. More than 20 per cent of the households have high-speed broadband and another 15 per cent accesses the Web on smartphones, according to estimates from telecom regulator TRAI.
The digital programmes of Kerala have been exemplary, states a recent case study, ‘On the Road to Digitization: The Case of Kerala’, by Anindita Paul and Radhakrishna Pillai of IIM Kozhikode.
“Kerala government’s Akshaya IT literacy project, running successfully since 2002, has played a major role in training the people, including the senior citizens,” says Paul. “This is reflected in the way the elderly are taking to smartphones and digital activities.”
Senior citizens make up 13 per cent of the population in Kerala, which has the country’s highest life expectancy at birth — 71.8 and 77.8 years for men and women, respectively. “This is a growing pool and, generally, elderly people just fade out, whiling away their time with mundane activities in their loneliness,” says Shiju Joseph, a psychologist based in Thiruvananthapuram. “But smartphone-aided digital infrastructure gave them a new lease of life.”
Joseph’s parents-in-law, Madhavan V Menon and Ambika, are avid users of smartphones and social media. “The smartphone made life much easier,” says Menon, a retired private sector employee. “Yes, today everyone is too hooked to the gadget, but the benefits are way too many if you know how to control your usage the right way.” Ambika says the smartphone introduced her to a new way of life. “I am now doing things I never imagined I would do before,” she says. “I resumed my literary activities (after I) got introduced to a Facebook collective where amateur writers present their works; now I write stories and get tips for my kitchen gardening hobby, which keeps me super-busy,” she beams. After making a host of new friends online, she regularly plans meet-ups with them.
“Free of familial responsibilities, many elderly users of smartphones are eager to experiment... to unleash their pent-up dreams and fantasies. You rarely see senior citizens standing in cinema queues these days. Almost everyone with a smartphone books online tickets,” says Favour Francis, CEO and creative director, Oak Tree Brandwagon, Thrissur. He believes that Kerala has immense potential for online platforms such as RPG Groups Seniority, which sells specially-curated products for senior citizens. According to him, the millions of WhatsApp groups in Kerala today are mostly administered by senior citizens. There are thousands of exclusive groups and forums for the seniors where they share ideas, build new projects, sell products and socialise for collective good. “This is really transformative.”
Equally, they are flocking eagerly to online shopping, which e-tailers such as Amazon and Flipkart have taken note of, Francis observes.
“We don’t generally profile our users, but our courier partners tell us from anecdotal evidence that senior citizens are showing a lot of enthusiasm towards online shopping in Kerala,” says a marketing manager of an e-commerce player with a strong presence in south India.
“Kerala is a key market for us... Some of the top performing categories include smartphones, FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods), large appliances and fashion, to name a few. Over 70 per cent of our traffic comes from mobile phones,” says an Amazon spokesperson.
Malappuram became India’s first fully e-literate district over a decade ago. “This region arguably buys the most number of smart gadgets in Kerala, thanks to the remittances from West Asia,” explains Muneer Valappil, who teaches communication and journalism at EMEA College Kondotty. “Many of my elderly relatives are active users of online tools, gadgets and use e-wallets and shop online.” In fact, some of them shop so much that they end up forming a familiar bond with the courier boys. “I know of an instance where the courier guy invites his customer for family events and village festivals,” says Valappil.
Rekha Menon, a TV anchor, is ready to vouch that most e-shoppers in Kerala are senior citizens. Her mother, a retired college professor, is among them and she also stays up-to-date with the trends in social media. “The smartphone empowered thousands like my mother in myriad ways,” says Menon, “by providing access to the Web, where they find quick, easy information on health, well-being, news, hobbies, DIY activities and a host of other subjects. My mother even took to Netflix recently,” she adds.
Even as senior Keralites swear by the smartphone, they are not immune to the charms of a big screen either. In the recent boom in the sale of Android TVs in Kerala, senior citizens form a significant chunk of the buyers, says Francis. The idea of a Web-connected big screen, where they can type and search, seems very tempting to many of them. “They use chatting apps on TV and the idea of seeing their children on the large screen is a big draw. With the explosion in 4G (network), thanks to the disruption brought by players such as Reliance Jio and Airtel (which made Web access very affordable), things have really taken off on this front,” Francis adds.
He, however, points out that the rural rich in Kerala is a segment that e-commerce and other digital companies haven’t paid much attention to.
No doubt, life in the villages has become super-cool with the arrival of the smartphone, says Menon. “Take the example of the traditional coconut harvester. Earlier, he was the most sought-after yet elusive character in a village. Now, my mother and her friends have him on their smartphones. There are instances of people WhatsApping or video-calling him to find out where he is and make sure he is not fibbing about his whereabouts.”
In rural areas, most neighbourhood shops now have WhatsApp groups for their customers, who get instant updates on the availability of everyday items. Even fish vendors manage WhatsApp groups on which they post information about fresh arrivals, complete with pictures, and get immediate orders, notes Valappil.
For the psychologist Joseph, what’s even more interesting is the role technology is playing in creating a level-playing field in Kerala. “Today, with affordable smartphones, the haves and have-nots equally have access to information, shopping, learning, and other services. This wasn’t possible even five years ago.”
As for worries that the gadgets might end up building a wrong kind of dependency among the elderly, Joseph disagrees. “These are people who would have otherwise done nothing at this phase of their lives. Psychologically speaking, such activities keep them engaged and enhance memory, social skills and creative spirits.”
My father-in-law, KTP Divakaran Namboodiri, a former LIC administrative officer, concurs with this wholeheartedly. “For many of us, the smartphone is a godsend. And we are wise enough to use it judiciously,” he says, before returning to briskly surf Amazon India’s pages on his smartphone. He is an avid e-shopper, while my mother-in-law is an enthusiastic social media user. “I am planning to buy an Amazon Echo (a smart speaker with a voice-controlled virtual assistant) soon. I think virtual assistants help the elderly a lot. What do you think? Have you tried the Kodi app on your phone? I saw a few reviews. Those are fantastic…” he can’t stop gushing.