Seniors and social media: more than keeping up with the grandkids
Online communication can have health benefits for older Canadians
Bertha Kronenberg readily admits to being a bit of a Nosy Parker.
But it's a well-intentioned nosiness for the Toronto senior who, like any devoted grandmother, just wants to know what her grandchildren are up to.
Kronenberg regularly logs onto her computer and goes to Facebook to find out about their comings and goings, and in doing so, has become one of an increasing number of Canadian seniors turning to computers and social media to stay connected with the world around them.
The New Retirement: Seniors in Canada
This week, CBC News launches a series on life for people 60 years and older. Canadians are living longer than ever before, a fact that is radically changing the meaning of retirement. Many people see it as a time of reinvention, a time to try new things.
All week long, CBC News will be publishing stories on seniors who are doing remarkable things in the so-called twilight years.
"I want to check up on my grandchildren … I want to see what they're doing, their girlfriends, their boyfriends, what nonsense they're up to," says Kronenberg, a resident at Forest Hill Retirement Living in north Toronto.
"But I'm a silent granny. I don’t make comments but I know … I keep in touch that way."
Figures from Statistics Canada show that the number of Canadians 75 years of age and older who are online grew from five per cent in 2000 to 27 per cent in 2012.
And many of those seniors are, like Kronenberg, logging onto Facebook and other social networking sites.
A report last year by seniors' services provider Revera Inc. in partnership with Leger Marketing found that more than half of online seniors older than 75 belong to a social networking site such as Facebook, and more than one-third of them go to those sites daily.
The number of seniors online came as a surprise to staff at Revera, which operates Kronenberg's residence and is trying to find the role the online world can play in improving seniors' lives.
"It was quite shocking and a surprise to us to find out how many of our own seniors are very deeply online and have lots of great knowledge," says Trish Barbato, senior vice-president of home health and business development at Revera Inc.
"They said that they see it as a way to stay socially connected, and also, it's a way to live independently and stay home longer."
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But some broad assumptions about seniors may have to be shattered before seniors' online experiences expand broadly.
"There's a bit of myth-busting that has to happen in some ways," says Barbato.
"I think that people sort of have a vision of seniors either not being able to learn [or] being afraid of technology. And while that might be true, that barrier gets broken pretty quickly."
Barbato looks to Kronenberg as a mythbuster. She's embraced online communication, Skyping with family members every morning. She's also encouraging other seniors at her residence, telling them that they, too, could learn to communicate online.
Never too old to learn
"She actually said you are never too old to learn something new," says Barbato. "It's really great."
For Barbato and others, the potential that social media and online communication hold for seniors extends beyond communication, particularly as they consider how the numbers of older people online are likely to grow.
"I don't think it's going to be too long, even within the next 10 years, we're going to see a huge increase in the seniors population that's using technology," says Barbato.
That will have practical implications — making sure all rooms in seniors' facilities are wired, for example — but there is also the opportunity to improve care, whether in a facility or at home.
Maybe as part of a home-care assessment, a way to improve a senior's mental health could be ensuring "there is some way that they can connect to their family and friends easily, so that we're not just working on a medical model, but something that's more holistic," says Barbato.
Revera has teamed with the Technologies for Aging Gracefully Lab in the computer science department at the University of Toronto to try to develop a way to ease online communication between seniors and their families and friends.
The Families in Touch project focuses on a tablet-based device designed to be something like a picture frame.
Within it are pictures of a senior's family members or friends. A simple touch of a picture – no clumsy mouse needed – sends a message to that person to let him or her know the senior is thinking of him or her. The family member or friend can respond with a picture, voice or text message or a video.
"We know … from other research [that] keeping socially active can be very beneficial for wellness," says Katherine Sellen, a post-doctoral researcher at the Technologies for Aging Gracefully Lab.
"Keeping active physically is important but social activity also helps to elevate mood and to help to actually impact healing and it can keep cognitive function ongoing as well as one ages. So what we wanted to do was see if we could actually facilitate that social activity."
Researchers have tried the tablet out with chronic pain patients, and "it's had a lot of success," says Sellen.
It's a three-year project, and Sellen says the first step is understanding the physical aspects of it, making sure the design of the tablet works well for seniors: can they hold it easily for any length of time, what about the lighting and font size, and so on.
Research has also suggested that when people have impaired mobility or changing physical capability, they often need to be able to boost their social connections because that's one of the things that can decline as well, says Sellen.
With the boomer population bubble looming, Sellen sees the potential for seniors' use of technology only growing.
"People are living longer, they're living longer with more challenges, so there is an absolute need for understanding and design work on how we can make technology flexible so we can in fact cater to … the changing needs and the more variety of needs that they have," says Sellen.
Marion Mills, a senior living in London, Ont., has also embraced the online world, although she's quick to note that it's not a complete replacement for in-person social interaction.
But it bothers her to hear other seniors say they could never be interested in a computer.
"I just feel so strongly that we should never limit ourselves because of our age or stage," says Mills.
"I think we should meet our challenges as we age, whatever they are, and we should choose maybe to make choices that will stimulate our minds as well as our bodies."