November 2, 2011

Seniors and Social Media

In December, 2010, Pew Internet published a report about internet use. One general conclusion – no surprise – was that certain online activities have become popular across all age groups. These activities include:
  • Email
  • Search engine use
  • Seeking health information
  • Getting news
  • Buying products
  • Making travel reservations or purchases
  • Doing online banking
  • Looking for religious information
  • Rating products, services, or people
  • Making online charitable donations
  • Downloading podcasts
Another conclusion in the report was more interesting to me: while it’s true that younger internet explorers are still most likely to use social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, the fastest growth in this area has come from users 74 and older. Since 2008, the percentage of senior internet users who visit social networking sites has quadrupled, from 4% to 16%.

And it seems unlikely that the trend will shift anytime soon, as seniors reach out to their peers with messages like “You can’t imagine how easy it is!” and “You won’t believe who I just found on Facebook!” and “I found the best virtual group with whom I can discuss Herbert’s diabetes” and “I’m coming over this afternoon to get you logged ON!"

According to this interesting report, here’s what seniors – aged 74 and up – are doing on the internet:
  • 80-89%: email
  • 70-79%: search
  • 50-59%: health info, buy a product, get news, travel reservations
  • 40-49%: government website
  • 30-39%: bank online, financial info
  • 20-29%: religious info, watch video
  • 10-19%: play games, online classifieds, social network sites, rate things, read blogs, donate to charity, listen to music, podcasts
  • 0-9%: online auction, blog, IM, virtual worlds
I can’t say I know any of my friends who are spending time playing Dungeons & Dragons online. But I would not be surprised.  :)

The Internet Empowers Us to Be Informed About Our Health
In several posts last week, I discussed the importance – the growing importance – of our becoming better informed about our health issues, which then empowers us to become more actively involved with our healthcare professionals to make important decisions about tests and procedures. How the internet has opened up that area for us! I gave a couple Mayo Clinic sites that I always find especially useful. You probably have a list of favorites, too.

We’re so lucky: the universe of health information available to us now is unlimited. Can you imagine how shocked our grandparents and great grandparents would be if we could show them how – and what – we have learned?

Mental and Emotional Health Benefits from Online Activities
AARP reports that about one third of all adults 75 and older live alone. Even with the TV handy, the phone on the table, and Cleo the cat ripping up the upholstery on the couch, this fact-of-life carries risks of social isolation and depression. For those seniors who cannot make regular trips to the senior center, or who have trouble getting out to visit friends – or getting friends to come visit them – social media can make a positive difference.

Dr. Gretchen Orosz at the Sparks Senior Health Center in Fort Smith, AK, says that more and more of the seniors in her care are turning to social media to fill a friendship / connection void. She says that learning new skills – like posting pictures of the grandkids and tagging them on Facebook – help keep their brains engaged. "There are studies, particularly with dementia, that people who are more active and are learning new things do better than people who drop all of those activities," she said.

Dr. Orosz advises that we stay alert for signs of social isolation among older friends who live alone. Those signs include:
  • The person has stopped answering phone calls
  • The person is increasingly emotional during conversations
  • The person has stopped doing normal activities like going to church or visiting friends
Connecting online with friends old and new, learning new skills, sharing messages and photographs, and feeling engaged can be just the ticket for seniors living alone.

There are all kinds of new references designed for seniors who want to get connected. One popular book is Facebook & Twitter for Seniors for Dummies. No kidding. I’ve found “Dummies” books very helpful through the years, and I’ve got a couple of them on the shelf in my office now.

Then There’s Twitter
Young writer and video blogger James Kotecki was having trouble convincing his grandmother why she should get on Twitter. He finally boiled it down to these five reasons:
  • Relevant Headlines Customized For You
  • Non-intrusive, Flexible Conversations With Your Friends
  • Access to Powerful People and Companies
  • Almost) No Junk
  • Twitter is Safe (As Long As You're Smart)
Nor sure how it works? This guy made a two-minute video to help seniors understand Twitter:

If I can do it, anyone can! In fact, when I first got my computer years ago, I looked just like this lady:

But there's part of me that still has plenty of reservations about substituting Facebook and Twitter for the real world. With the blog and regular e-mail contacts with friends and family, I often feel that I spend too much time on the computer already without falling into the Facebook and Twitter black holes. Kotecki, the guy who got his grandma to get her own Twitter account, has a ballad that addresses my sentiments.

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