Helping older people online

What you need to know if you bank or shop online for an older family member or friend.

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Older people often turn to family or friends to help them with a variety of internet tasks. These may include banking, shopping or communicating with government departments online. But what's the best way to go about taking on this responsibility?

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What are online representatives? 

People who aren't particularly tech savvy, don't have internet access, or who are mentally or physically impaired may require someone else to help them manage online accounts and transactions. In some cases, an older person may just find engaging with online accounts or websites confusing or scary and want the reassurance that someone who knows what they're doing is handling it for them, according to research by Monash University.

The research, which was funded by the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), has found that a range of Australians are acting as 'proxy internet users', using online services and applications on behalf of other adults. While it's usually a family member, it can also be carers, social workers or other professional representatives. 

What do helpers do online? 

The responsibilities of an online representative may include tasks like maintaining bank accounts, paying bills or logging into government sites and accounts. 

In some cases, the representative will interact with the guidance of the person, or they may retain usernames and passwords to log in themselves at any time.

Tasks may include:

  • Paying bills such as rates, telco, utilities, credit card accounts.
  • Interacting with Medicare, ATO, Centrelink and other government departments that require online submission of claims, letters and returns.
  • Shopping online and paying for items with credit cards or online payment methods such as PayPal.
  • Banking such as transferring money between accounts, paying others and setting up direct debits.
  • Booking flights, doing online searches, finding contact details and general research.
  • Interacting with others through social media, email and cloud services. 
  • Downloading files including movies and ebooks and managing these accounts.

Staying engaged

For older people, it can be reassuring to have someone help them with the often confusing and sometimes scary experience of going online. However, they should still be encouraged to try to learn more about the web. If possible, a helper should assist with rather than takeover tasks, so the person doesn't get left behind in their web skills and so that they fully understand what's being done on their behalf.

What about power of attorney?

If you will be making decisions on behalf of someone else, you should consider a power of attorney. Acting as a power of attorney gives you the status of official representative for someone to make financial and personal decisions on their behalf. If you're helping your mother or father with their online accounts and property matters, having a power of attorney in place gives you the legal permission to act for that person. 

There are two types of power of attorney. 

  1. A general power of attorney may be for a specific period of time, for example while the person is in hospital, or indefinitely up until the person has lost capacity to make decisions - as happens in cases of advanced dementia. General powers of attorney are limited to financial decisions and legal issues related to financial and property matters. 
  2. An enduring power of attorney continues after the person has lost capacity. If the person has lost the capacity to make decisions or the representative will be making personal or medical as well as financial decisions, an enduring power of attorney is needed.

A power of attorney can give the representative wide-ranging powers in regards to a person's money or property, or it can be limited to specific tasks such as paying certain kinds of bills or selling their house. For more advice, see our article on how to organise a power of attorney.

What if I deal with Medicare or Centrelink?

If you're acting for your parent with Medicare, you'll need to be registered as an official representative and you'll need to lodge a power of attorney.  If you're acting for your parent with Centrelink, there are different types of nominees – payment or correspondence, or both. You'll need to lodge a form with your identity, although a power of attorney isn't needed if your parent can sign the form themselves. 

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Tips if you're acting for someone else on the net

  • Record with screenshots and/or digital receipts your payments and other transactions.
  • Email the family member with details of any transactions with dates and amounts.
  • If possible, get the person to enter their login and password details themselves.
  • Record and share the procedures and routines that your proxy activities entail so they're transparent.
  • If working remotely, consider using computer-screen sharing software such as Join.Me or Team Viewer so both parties can see the transactions taking place.
  • Look for computer courses that you as the proxy and the person you're representing can take together to both understand the internet and online services.
  • Set yourself up as an authorised user for accounts such as bank accounts rather than impersonating the person.
  • Register as a nominee for government departments to access Centrelink, ATO and other accounts.
  • If your job requires you to act as a proxy, clarify your role and the legal protections in case anything goes wrong.
  • Obtain informed consent for any online activities and regularly discuss the arrangements and expectations with your family member.
  • See the ACCAN tip sheet if you're using the internet on behalf of others.

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