The Wired (Older) Generation: Seniors Online

Cheerful grandmother sitting at home using her laptop

If you think Facebook, Twitter, chat rooms, Skype and blogging are only for young people, think again! Today, seniors are the fastest growing group to use social networking and other internet tools for expanding social connections and keeping up with family and friends. Indeed, a recent report from the Pew Research Center found that 72 percent of people over 65 are now using social networking sites—three times as many as were posting, tweeting and blogging a mere four years ago.

Experts on aging have long known that isolation and loneliness are dangerous for older adults. As we saw in the previous issue of  "Hand in Hand", staying socially connected improves physical and emotional well-being, increases mental alertness, and encourages a more active lifestyle. New research studies confirm these benefits and more, pinpointing the mechanisms behind the protective properties of human interaction that promote heart health, lower the risk of Alzheimer's disease, improve symptoms of depression and minimize the effects of stress.

Yet as we grow older, many of us tend to withdraw from the social events and activities we once enjoyed. Failing health and decreased energy make it harder to get out of the house. Hearing impairment can cause communication frustration and a sense of isolation. The loss of a spouse, children moving away, and retirement from work can all lead to the breakdown of long-time social connections. Can online connections help fill the gap?

Research is underway to find out how effectively online connections meet the social needs of our later years. The study results are largely positive. And one thing is already known: more and more seniors themselves value these new technologies, as evidenced by the numbers using them. An AARP study found that seniors and baby boomers are increasingly social on the Web, joining online communities in increasing numbers, the majority logging on every day. The majority of seniors say that the internet is important in maintaining social relationships.

Are Online Connections the Same?

Online connections can't take the place of in-person visits, or a hug, or meaningful time spent in the presence of others. Yet more and more studies suggest it can be a beneficial supplement to more traditional human interaction. Online social contact can build continuity in relationships, allowing for daily interaction that was not available to seniors in previous times, when letters or long distance phone calls provided the only connection with far away loved ones. The convenience of email, social networking sites and webcam connections can help take the edge off loneliness. Online communications also have been shown to provide cognitive benefits of intellectual stimulation. These technologies can be a lifeline for those with health problems that keep them confined to home. 

Here are some of the ways seniors are staying connected online:

Email

Email remains the most popular online activity for all seniors; according to the Pew report, 86 percent of older internet users communicate in that way. A survey by Evercare showed that even centenarians are using email to exchange messages and photos. There may be a steep learning curve for older adults who aren't computer-savvy, but "senior-friendly" software and classes are available to help. In many families, members of the younger generation enjoy displaying their skills by providing tech support for grandparents.

Blogging

More and more seniors are reading the blogs of companies, pundits, healthcare organizations and ordinary people who report on their own lives or a particular topic. Some blogs are like diaries; some are professional; some are more like support groups. Many seniors are creating their own blogs, and older adults are becoming ever more active in the "blogosphere," posting comments on the blogs of companies, individuals, news media sites and political groups.

Social networking websites

Many seniors keep in touch with family, neighborhood and interest groups using free online social utilities, such as Facebook and Twitter, and many make new online friends as well. They connect with the millions of businesses, government and senior service agencies and senior living communities that now use social networking sites as an important part of their communications strategy. With hundreds of millions of users worldwide, social networking sites offer a window on the world combined with opportunities for interaction. 

Online communities and chat rooms

Online communities are groups of people who exchange messages on websites that offer "forums" or "bulletin boards." Online communities (also known as "virtual communities") allow seniors to connect with others who have a shared membership or interest, such as a hobby, favorite TV program, health condition or class reunion group.

Longtime friendships have developed over the decades that these communities have existed. Some online communities also offer chat rooms, where participants can have online conversations in real time. AARP and other senior organizations sponsor online communities especially for older adults.

Internet voice and video communication

Seniors are using Skype and other such online services to read a bedtime story to grandchildren, attend a virtual senior center event, and even talk to their healthcare provider. Now that this technology has been with us for a while, studies are confirming that long-distance family connections are enhanced and sustained by frequent virtual contact. Families also report that the connection helps nurture relationships between the generations.

Staying safe online

While internet access and social networking allow many seniors to keep in touch with the world and with friends, there are pitfalls to be aware of. Just as in real life, seniors may be targeted by scam artists online. Read the October 2013 issue of Hand in Hand to learn about some red flags seniors should be aware of, and to find suggestions for family about how to discuss this topic with older loved ones.

Copyright © IlluminAge, 2013