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Using Technology to Empower Seniors

When seniors start using new technologies, it can lead to hilarious situations. I read this story the other day about a grandmother who was Skyping with her grandson Evan. At some point, her screen went black. Those who are tech-savvy know that laptops can go into sleep-mode after x-minutes of inactivity. Granny, however, didn’t and panicked: “Help! My screen is dying, what do I do Evan?” Evan, still being connected via Skype, replied: “No worries grandmother, just shake the m...”, at which point he seemed to be witnessing an earthquake of immense magnitude at the other side of the screen. Granny did get her screen back eventually. But instead of softly shaking the mouse (like one does when the laptop goes into sleep-mode), she had been shaking the entire laptop vigorously for almost an entire minute - frantic to get her grandson back on screen. 

This little anecdote illustrates three things. The first being that seniors, now more than ever, are using digital devices and have an online presence. Secondly, it tells us something about the reason they use it: for maintaining social ties with, in this case, family. Thirdly, it illustrates that this specific group, despite their enthusiasm, faces many roadblocks when it comes to technology use - but also that intergenerational contact can play a major role in empowering them in this trajectory!

Online presence of seniors

Perhaps contrary to the stereotype, FOSI’s latest report shows that fully 80% of seniors (aged 62-79) go online. And they do so regularly, averaging 18.2 hours per week. Over the past years, seniors really have adapted: In 2011, only 25% owned a smartphone, compared to 67% in 2018! Why is that? Seniors use the Internet nowadays for various reasons, such as contacting friends and/or family, navigation, and shopping. They often use email, calling, and Skype to stay in touch with old high-school friends or family. Some seniors also use Facebook, but mainly for intergenerational communication (e.g. grandparent and grandchild) and in a passive way (consuming rather than creating content). 

Social versus solitary

My grandmother lives far away. She loves cycling but recently, she was in an accident and is now tied to her house. When we last visited, she complained a lot: she couldn’t cycle, didn’t meet people (except for the nurses) and felt so bored. Her position is recognizable for many seniors. With age, some mundane social activities suddenly become immensely difficult: going shopping, attending church, having lunch with a friend… The older people become, the more they are at risk for social isolation. So while seniors often desire social connections, they sometimes cannot access them, which can lead to feeling lonely, apathetic, and sad. Indeed, loneliness is an important issue to be tackled. Dr. Vivek H. Murthy (M.D., 19th Surgeon General of the United States) talked about a “loneliness epidemic” as a potential public health issue, given that loneliness can actually lead to physical ailments such as increased chances of coronary heart disease and depression. He also emphasized that the reduction in lifespan for loneliness is similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day, thereby surpassing the mortality effect of obesity! Given that so many interventions focus on reducing obesity and smoking, it is high time to focus on increasing social connectedness, in particular for those who are most vulnerable. 

Empowerment through technology

Luckily, technological advancements give seniors many chances to stay in touch with others and increase their quality of life. Engaging in Wii video games, Skype calls, exchanging pictures via email...there are many ways in which technology can foster inclusion of seniors and increase participation. Important, however, is the will to use it: seniors have to subscribe to the benefits of technology when engaging with it. Only then will it be an enrichment of their lives, rather than a source of stress. Understandably, many elderly worry about privacy and trust. Family, therefore, plays an important role in taking these worries away and explaining what (or not) to do on the web. 

Take-aways:

  1. Talk about the topic of aging and social connectedness and see how expectations and realities match and what can be done to change this.

  2. Embrace technology to boost communication: life begins at the beginning of your comfort zone, right? Why not buy a smartphone or tablet, install some apps, and broaden your horizons. A perfect way to go to events, meet new people or get in touch with long lost friends.

  3. Use technology to bring generations together: share pictures online, help each other out and talk about the perks and pitfalls of digital citizenship (more about this coming soon!). 

2 example apps to start with:

  1. AARP (American Association of Retired Persons): resource for events nearby, information about health services, news and more

  2. Skype: to stay in touch with family