Notes from Youville: How Seniors Benefit from Social Media
On Keeping in touch, and how seniors can benefit from the use of social media.
Last year, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was chatting with a group of seniors in the conference room at the Selfhelp Benjamin Rosenthal Senior Center in Queens. Well, strictly speaking, not everybody involved was “in” the conference room. A few participants, peering in from a large screen, were able to join the conversation from their bedrooms and watch from their own computers as the mayor spoke.
“We all think that technology is just for the young people,” said Bloomberg at the time. “That’s not true. Seniors have a need and they look for ways to solve their problems, and technology in many cases is the answer.”
For those watching from their personal computers, the statement rang true. They were participating in the conversation through Skype, one of many programs that connect people through live video chats.
Thanks to video chatting, many seniors, otherwise isolated in their homes, can once again have contact with the outer world and connect with fellow seniors on a daily basis. All they need is a computer, an Internet connection and in most cases a little preliminary instruction.
One of the core tenets of the Selfhelp Benjamin Rosenthal Senior Center is that knowledge of technology can foster independence and improved health. When seniors can navigate the Internet, they have greater control over their lives.
Sandra Nohavicka, a social worker who specializes in teaching homebound seniors how to use social media, told the Huffington Post last year that social media “helps people build support systems, make friends, reacquaint themselves with old friends, connect with family, and connect over shared interests.” Nohavicka has helped patients with a variety of age-related illnesses find a way out of isolation via email, Facebook, Skype and other sites. Many were even able to “attend” her wedding, which she broadcasted on Youtube.
The tricky part is teaching a group of people so late in life what is often a completely new skill set. This gets even trickier when those people have visual, auditory or cognitive impairments.
At Pace University, college students are trained to teach seniors basic computer skills by first going through a preliminary course of “sensitivity training.” They experience simulated physical impairments like arthritis, hearing and vision loss. After days of trying to follow directions with earplugs or typing with their fingers taped together (to simulate arthritis), the young adults are ready to sympathize with their senior pupils, and seniors benefit from personal, patient instructors.
In spite of the difficulties, seniors are surfing the web like never before. The Pew Research Association reports that the percentage of seniors who regularly use social media has quadrupled over the past three years, increasing to 54 percent in 2012. This includes 34 percent of people over the age of 75 who are now going online regularly.
Seniors are also joining Facebook faster than any other age group. You might wonder, what’s the appeal? Some are simply fascinated by technology. Such is the case with Florence Detlor, a 101-year old California resident who made headlines last year as the world’s oldest Facebook user.
Born before the age of the telephone, she stated on NPR that new technology is “what makes one time different from another.” On most days she receives hundreds of messages and friend requests. Her popularity and media attention even prompted an invitation from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to meet at Facebook headquarters for a tour!
Those without Florence’s interest in technology are drawn to the possibility of keeping in touch with younger family members. Joining Facebook gives these seniors access to pictures and updates, and provides common ground with grandchildren who use the site daily. These electronic encounters may not be quite the same as in-person meetings, but a grandchild’s online persona – and perhaps the occasional message – can be the next best thing if geography prevents frequent visits.
Some worry that our increased reliance on social media comes at the expense of in-person social interaction. More than one journalist has pondered the question, “Could Facebook be making us more lonely?” But a report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project found that most people are using social media to supplement and enhance real-life ties rather than replace them. Experts agree that active users of social media meet in-person just as often as non-users – in many instances, social media facilitates in-person meetings. Sites like Meetup.com connect people with a wide variety of organized activities going on in the area. There’s even a senior corollary, seniors.meetup.com.
Whether we like it or not, social media has increasing influence over how we live our lives. Seniors who understand email, Facebook, Twitter and Skype can increase their sense of connection to younger generations, family and the changing cultural environment.