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Teaching Seniors to Reap the Benefits of Social Media

Social networks can be a powerful tool for seniors if used properly.

Social media is booming in all markets, so when I hear talk about social media use by seniors, I would ask what a "senior" is.

It used to be that people aged 65 and older were automatically classified as seniors, because that was the age at which most people retired. Today, not all people over age 65 want to be called seniors — heck, most of us cringe when we receive the AARP card at 50! I did, at least.

According to a Pew Research Center article, "Older Adults and Social Media," social networking use among people age 50 and older nearly doubled in the last year — it was up 42 percent in 2010.

Recently, someone said to me that persons in their 50s (seniors) are not very tech-savvy. I was floored, first because I fell into that age category, and also because I do not think of myself as a senior.

So what age are we speaking about? What is a senior? As a member of the Baby Boomer set, I can state that many of us are very much into the Internet and are fairly savvy and comfortable with social media. In fact, anyone over the age of 50 still working today has had to make the leap into the social networking sphere.

I think that the aging baby boomer is likely to be more comfortable using technology to communicate than previous generations, i.e. their parents. After all, many of us have become familiar with e-communication tools (like emails and listservs) and other tech gadgets (Palm Pilots, Blackberries, etc.) in the workplace.

Yes, I agree that persons over 65 are very hesitant to begin using the computer and those that do usually restrict their usage to finance and news and occasional Facebook visits to view their grandchildren.

However, the push for social networking education for older Americans appears to be happening. Backed by such industry heavyweights as Comcast, Facebook and Microsoft, Project GOAL, a new Washington, D.C.-based organization, officially launched on May 10, with the goal of getting more senior citizens on the Web. This was happening just as that someone was telling me anyone over the age of 50 is not tech-savvy.

As far as people over the age of 75, this may be a bit more dangerous leap and I would wager they are more resistant to computers. They are also targeted by scammers looking to take advantage of their little computer knowledge or possible dwindling cognitive skill.

I believe, though, that if older adults learn how to navigate social media and how to use it as a tool to connect with others, it  can alleviate feelings of loneliness & isolation. It may also prove to be good for the intellectual well being of seniors as well.

Social media skills may be difficult for a senior to grasp at first, but gaining some moderate computer knowledge will improve most anyone’s ability. The most serious issue is stolen personal information, hence the need for training, so that seniors wanting to be on the web socializing may do so while minimizing any personal and financial risks. As an advocate who works for and with seniors, I see many of them engaged in learning — with the ability, desire and energy to focus on new technology.

Obviously, a senior with health impairments such as dementia or Alzheimer's Disease could become confused. On the other hand, there are many older Americans with amazingly interesting Facebook pages with links to arts, music and news items, and still many others using the web to communicate with family, so stereotyping all seniors as "not tech-savvy" is plain foolish. Twitter and iPhone usage would be up also if the right people were willing to "home-school" the elderly on social media. While there should be caution over privacy and security (especially as more senior users come into the market), proper media education will help minimize any risks.

There are tremendous possibilities for seniors to learn and benefit from the Internet. In the long run, making a senior or anyone who is home bound feel less isolated is a good thing. I hope that seniors continue to embrace social media and that this group of new learners keeps on growing.

Check first with your local Council on Aging for classes in this regard.

If you know of any Internet education classes designed for seniors, please let us know in the comments section. These classes can help introduce seniors to the benefits of using social media to connect with family and friends.

MonicaCruz May 20, 2011 at 04:49 PM
I tried a few times to show my grandma how to surf the web and do a little basic emailing - that took a while and lot of false starts. I think that if email and basic web surfing was diffuclt, something like Twitter or Facebook would just be totally confuse her. It's not like she relies on it either way since my grandparents don't a have a computer and their cellphones don't have have those kind of functions. I had to get them the most basic little flip phone, found one with Tracfone's SVC line, and its "senior" friendly so there are no apps beyond a phone book and texting messaging - the more basic it is the more likely she is to use it. I think it a great idea that older people get more connected - on a level they can get.
Sara-Lynn Reynolds May 20, 2011 at 06:58 PM
Hi Monica! It’s wonderful that you took the time to try and teach your Grandma something new! Like most anything we are attempting to learn (no matter what our age) unless we are doing it often and/or daily we forget and have to be shown again. Many times it’s just a matter of overcoming the fear of doing something wrong. I had a good friend once say to me (when I first starting using a computer…I was 32), “You can’t break it (meaning the computer) Sara…just keep trying…do not be afraid…it will come to you!” Also, there are many ways to get to the same end when using the computer…everyone has a different way of teaching you or showing you certain methods (which can also be confusing). So when we talk about teaching others, including seniors something new, I think we have to be cognizant of their age, their ability to retain information, and how often they are getting the instruction and also once they learn…how often will they be using the technology or what they were just taught…if its only every so often…they (like anyone else) will forget… Keep helping your Grandma learn new 'stuff'...I am sure she is appreciative!
Maria Tadd May 20, 2011 at 08:32 PM
Yes, the line of demarcation as to who is a senior and who isn't is a bit fuzzy. Certainly most baby-boomers are quite tech savvy and will embrace all sorts of technology as they age. Isolation is one of the draw backs of aging, particularly if the elder lives alone. Being able to connect with friends and loved ones via the internet should help alleviate some of the loneliness. The simpler the equipment the better. There will be more and more ways to help elders age at home as this is where over 90% want to be, according to an AARP survey. To help elders live longer and better, technology will be playing a bigger and bigger role. Maria Tadd, author, Happiness Is Growing Old at Home.
Sara-Lynn Reynolds May 22, 2011 at 03:04 PM
Thanks for your thoughts Maria! Your comment "The simpler the equipment the better" is important in that as we all age our memories and cognitive process many times gets slower. Fewer steps to remember is always a good thing. Kudos to you for writing a book about your experiences with your Mother and long distance caregiving...I will be sure to check it out!
Greg Allbright May 27, 2011 at 03:14 PM
Seniors have been some of my best clients. They are highly skeptical at first of social media, but once they see the ability it gives them to connect with lost family/friends and engage in conversation they become proficient quickly. My belief is that its time more nonprofits use social media to engage their "senior" donors and supporter. http://changedfw.com/?p=1278
Sara-Lynn Reynolds May 27, 2011 at 07:42 PM
Hi Greg! I would agree...seniors of all ages are just as interested in learning new 'things' as anyone else and its just a matter of getting them to a 'comfort level'...no one likes diving head first into the unknown...a little gentle prodding and follow up goes a long way...

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