The Internet offers promising new ways to end isolation and loneliness among the senior citizens we love. This is no small thing. Relationships, after all, are at the core of mental and even physical health.
The 2004 Australian longitudinal study of aging examined the social networks of 1,477 people aged 70 years and older. They found that people who had greater networks of friends had a greater survival rate over the next 10 years. Here in America, researchers Julianne Holt-Lunstad and Timothy Smith at Brigham Young University studied data from 148 previously published longitudinal studies that measured how human interaction impacts health. They found that social connections improve our odds for survival by 50 percent.
In his best-selling book Healthy at 100, John Robbins writes that the most important predictor of good health and a long life is the quality of our relationships.
Our challenge, then, is to help seniors remain connected. If you love a senior who has become isolated and perhaps depressed, you can make a major difference by introducing him or her to the world on the web.
Some things to consider:
The Internet can seem overwhelming at first. Remind the person that in their lifetime they’ve already done many things that are probably far more difficult. They probably performed tasks on the job and at home that were once just as new and mysterious at the time. They can do this. Suggest they take a deep breath and remind themselves that they are smart and capable. Then go slow and take it one step at a time. And be patient. You may find cruising the Internet as easy as writing a note. But for someone whose last innovation in communication was the electric typewriter, this is a whole new world.
If the person has physical limitations, consult with your local computer store about adaptations that are available. Many seniors, for example, find it difficult to double-click due to tremors or coordination problems that come with old age or medication side effects. Their computer can be adapted to slow down the interval between clicks. If their vision is impaired, increase the size of icons and fonts.
Take the time to have them test drive both a desktop and a tablet. You want to minimize frustration and maximize pleasure. Some people, especially those who know how to touch-type, like a keyboard. Others are more comfortable with a tablet touch screen. Some models convert handwriting to print. If both typing and writing are challenging, see about getting voice-activated software.
Applications: Let the senior set the pace. Some will take to using a computer like a duck to water. Others need a slower introduction and to practice one application thoroughly before learning another. Thorough demonstrations and doing it together for awhile are often the way to overcome technophobia.
My personal choice is to first set up Skype. Once people see the faces of people they love, they are often hooked. They can have tea and a talk with an old friend even if they are separated by a thousand miles. They can read to a grandchild or be a loving ear for their adventures, joys and woes. They can participate in family celebrations even if they can’t get there in person.
Facebook! Another demo. Show them how it works. Once they are on Facebook, seniors often become frequent users. It’s wonderful to see posted pictures of family and friends and to stay up to date on what people they know are doing and thinking.
Ditto with email. Yes, there’s still a place for old-fashioned letters that people can keep to read and reread. Like letters, email doesn’t require real-time response. Once printed out, email can feel like a letter. Take the person through the steps to create and read email. Soon you’ll have an active correspondent.
And then there are chat rooms. Chat rooms let them find new people from all over the world with whom to exchange information and ideas about hobbies, interests and the news. Some people even find new love.
Finally, it’s important to provide some education about potential victimization. Seniors are not immune from marketing schemes, solicitations from people they meet on the web and identity theft. Contrary to the stereotype, elderly victims are not predominantly uneducated and poor. Like the rest of us, they may fall victim to what seem like legitimate promotions or may reveal too much private information. Do talk about self-protection in the virtual world.
One of my friends recently introduced the Internet to her 89-year-old aunt who had been housebound for years due to ill health. Lonely and depressed, she often didn’t bother to get showered or dressed and spent most of her day in bed. Her primary contact with others was with visiting nurses. The Internet has changed all that. Now she’s on Facebook every day, staying on top of activities of distant relatives. She emails her grand-nieces and nephews and Skypes with her oldest friend who lives with her daughter in another state. Her zest for life is back. My friend is much relieved to have a way to check in regularly and to know that her aunt again has a positive quality of life.