Although 92 percent of Americans aged 18-29 are online, only 42 percent of Americans 65 and older are occasionally using the Internet or email, according to Live Science and the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
Study after study shows that more seniors should use the Internet because those who do are better off, especially when they suffer from an illness or mobility challenge.
For seniors who are online, the benefits are evident – better social connections and even increased happiness. But there is a large group of seniors who are not online, and have no intention of learning. “Aging often involves decreased memory, attention, cognitive speed, visual acuity, and fine motor control — the same capacities needed to use a computer. So it’s no surprise that senior citizens typically take twice as long to learn digital skills, and are more prone to errors when they do get online,” Neil Charness of Florida State University tells Live Science. “Consequently, they may decide that the results are just not worth the effort.”
But, in fact the benefits are worth the effort. And here’s the proof:
A recent study in the Computers in Human Behavior journal called “Life satisfaction in the Internet age — Changes in the past decade“found that Internet use led to increased levels of life satisfaction for seniors, especially those with health problems and those in weaker social groups. In fact, “seniors who use the Internet report higher levels of life satisfaction than seniors who do not.”
According to David Trilling, a writer with The Journalist Resource, the above-mentioned study examined the types of online behavior that were most closely linked with increased life satisfaction and found that email and shopping online were linked to increased happiness, but using social media and playing games did not increase happiness.
The study also found that finding information through the Internet only increased life satisfaction for seniors with health problems – healthy seniors did not experience a lift in happiness from this online activity. Trilling believes this is because many seniors with health problems are otherwise limited in their ability to interact with others.
These connections are one of the reasons that getting online helps combat senior depression. Live Science found that a study by the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal & Economic Public Policy “indicates that spending time online cuts the incidence of depression among senior citizens by at least 20 percent.” The study looked at adults aged 55 and older who were retired, not working, and not living in nursing homes. Study co-author Sherry G. Ford, a professor at the University of Montevallo in Alabama told Live Science that “increased Internet access and use by senior citizens enables them to connect with sources of social support when face-to-face interaction becomes more difficult…Hence, they are less susceptible to depression.”
According to Paul Sharman, the senior engagement officer at Claris Healthcare, 60% of seniors over the age of 75 who don’t use any type of computer, tablet or laptop “are completely left out of everyday online conversations. It’s no wonder 40% of older seniors also self-identify as being socially isolated.”
Not only does the Internet help seniors feel connected to society, it also helps them stay close with friends and family (especially when the relationship is long-distance). Being online also allows older adults to share photos and videos and connect with their local communities (especially former colleagues, school chums and peers). Plus, for families, having an older adult online provides greater peace of mind. It makes it easier to communicate and do face time via Skype or other software to see how they’re doing.
The benefits of getting seniors online are so significant, Britain is looking at launching a large-scale digital education project to help seniors who aren’t tech savvy get online.
According to an article by Emily Dugan with The Independent, “it would cost £875m to teach the 6.2 million people who lack basic online skills.” Academics like Eddie Copeland “argue that a large-scale digital education project would bring dramatic social and economic benefits to Britain.”
Copeland told Dugan that “being able to simply write an email or access a social networking site could provide older people with a way to stay connected to their friends and families, who may live hundreds of miles away. Maintaining these important relationships will help an ageing society vulnerable to loneliness and disconnection from a fast moving modern world.”
With no similar government-led initiatives on the horizon in the United States, what can families do to help older adults get online? According to Sharman, it’s all about how you approach the subject. He suggests:
If you give a computer, tablet or smartphone as a gift you’re likely to hear ‘I don’t need that,’ or ‘I’ll never figure out how to use this.’ If this is the case, tell them that ‘it’s not for you, it’s for me.’ Explain that ‘using email makes it easier on the rest of the family to communicate with you,’ Sharman suggests. “I’ve found that they are much more receptive to trying it — because they’re doing it for someone else.”
Sharman suggest that “when first introducing new technology, start by showing only one feature. If you can, hide everything else. Position the computer as a device for only one purpose: either looking at incoming email messages, viewing pre-loaded photos, or receiving video calls.”
If you’re using the computer for email, then think of it is a one-way communication to your family member. “Once you’ve introduced email for example, continue to engage your loved one by sending messages without the expectation of any response. Just continue to provide consistent and interesting content (e.g. pictures of the grand kids) and you will be successful,” Sharman says.
The benefits for seniors who are online outweigh the challenges of getting them there. Whether confidence, disinterest or a lack of ability are holding them back, there are ways that you can help the older adult in your life get online.
Do you have a senior loved one who is active online? How has being online benefitted them or increased their quality of life? We’d love to hear your stories in the comments below.