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How social media and technology are changing the lives of the elderly

POSTED: July 25, 2017 9:00 a.m.
Alicia Matsuura/

Livia and Don Weinstein

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Livia Weinstein didn’t know what to expect when she created a Facebook account almost 10 years ago.

The now 79-year-old from Washington, D.C., said her reason for joining the online world was due more to her desire to keep up with the times than a means for socialization. To the former school counselor, nothing could replace the value of face-to-face communication with all its inflections and tones, a characteristic absent from instant messaging and texting.

She didn’t appreciate the powerful impact of social media until one day she was overcome with curiosity and typed her maiden name, “Morpurgo,” into her Facebook search bar. Not expecting to find anything, it surprised her when she discovered distant family members whom she had never met.

After connecting with each other, they eventually created a "Morpurgo family" group page to organize online communication. The page has since grown and now consists of over 150 members. Two years after making initial contact, the family organized a gathering in Trieste, Italy, the land of their roots. They shared family stories, visited cemeteries, explored historical sites and even the Morpurgo Museum. These visits helped them trace the family line back to the 16th century. It was a special experience for Weinstein, who lost contact with her Italian relatives after immigrating to the United States in 1939.

“It’s nice to know you have other relatives, more family than just the immediate family here,” Weinstein said. “Just finding people with the same background, same name is amazing. It was a very interesting thing that would have never happened if it wasn’t for the internet and Facebook.”

Older adults across the United States are adjusting to a world of advancing technology. Not only are they accepting the changes, but some, like Weinstein, are actively implementing technology in their daily lives.

According to a May 2017 study conducted by Pew Research Center, 67 percent of adults age 65 and older in the United States were active online users in 2016 — a big jump from 2000 when only 14 percent of seniors claimed to be internet users.

Over the next decade as the baby boomer generation continues to age, the number of seniors using the internet is expected to increase, highlighting benefits and challenges of its impact on a large aging population — including both positive and negative effects on the brain.

Positive effects

Along with visiting family members in Italy, social media has also helped Weinstein connect with a long-lost cousin in Florida, with whom she formed a relationship.

Connecting with family members and friends is just one way the internet has positively impacted the lives of older adults. Getting online also gives seniors a tool for managing and researching health issues and a way to increase brain activity.

Heather Young, associate vice chancellor for nursing at UC Davis, has witnessed the many benefits of e-health throughout her career. "E-health" is a broad term for health care activities supported by technology and online communication. It includes anything from connecting with health care providers online and collaborating with other patients in chat rooms to doing web research.

According to Young, chat rooms such as patientslikeme.com are an effective way for people with similar health conditions to give each other advice and resources.

"Being able to connect with other people is very useful, especially if you’re dealing with a chronic condition that has a lot of emotional aspects to it,” Young said. “It can be very isolating and frightening to live with a difficult health problem and think you’re the only one suffering from this. Being able to hear from other people and their experiences can be comforting and very helpful.”

Web research is also helpful, especially for individuals living in remote areas who have limited access to immediate on-site information. Plus, it saves patients from the hassle of leaving their homes and traveling to a doctor’s office.

Internet use has also been shown to improve brain activity in older adults. Gary Small, a geriatric psychiatrist and alzheimer’s expert from UCLA, has seen how technology can enhance daily living by increasing effectiveness and helping seniors function longer.

Small and his colleagues conducted a study called “Your Brain on Google,” discovering that neural activity increases when an individual searches online. For this study, they observed adults between the ages of 55-76. Findings revealed that even those with older brains had more neural activity when using the internet compared to those who didn’t.

“Just a little practice searching online for an hour a day, a week, resulted in a significant increase of brain activity,” Small said.

Challenges and solutions

The adoption of social media and internet usage among older adults also has its downsides, including distraction, difficulty finding trusted resources and technology usability.

In addition to the benefits of online usage, Small has also studied how it distracts people and how it affects memory.

“If you’re always on your account and looking at your phone, you’re not noticing what’s going on in the world. It distracts you and your memory isn’t that good,” Small said. “Memory has two components: paying attention so you can learn things and paying attention so you can pull it out of your memory when you need to.”

Small's concern is the weakening of face-to face communication skills, a problem he became interested in when his teenage kids weren’t looking him in the eye during a conversation. The distracting effects of technology are often associated with younger people who tend to be high-frequency users; however, people of any age can be affected. Distraction can affect safety, for example, while driving. It can also hamper thought processes and limit the brain's thinking capabilities.

“(Technology) trains our brains to be in some ways less creative as we jump from idea to idea, just the way we jump from website to website,” Small said. “To really solve complex problems, you need quiet time to be thoughtful. You need to delve into things and not be distracted.”

It’s all about finding balance. Small encourages people to train and not strain their brains. Mental stimulation is beneficial for any age, but there exists a sweet spot where mental activity is fun and engaging before it becomes too stressful.

Another challenge is finding trusted sources online. With the troves of data and information on the web, it can be difficult for seniors to identify reliable sites. Unreliable sites can lead to potential misdiagnosis or being scammed. When it comes to researching health information, Young advises avoiding sites that are sponsored by products or unofficial personnel and looking for sites with information that is current, unbiased and based on the search.

Trusted sites that generally provide evidence-based information on treatments and conditions include Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), Healthfinder.gov and National Institutes of Health (NIH). Websites ending in .edu, .gov and .org tend to be more reliable and up-to-date than sites ending in .com and .net.

Technology and products that fail to address the debilitating factors of age have also been problematic for seniors. According to Young, designing technological devices customized for older adults includes using fonts big enough for people to read and upping the contrast in display screens for those with low vision. Without these customized adjustments, it can be difficult for seniors to read information online or use their smartphones. Luckily, industrial engineers are working to solve these problems.

"People realize it’s a huge market, and more older people are using the internet so they’re trying to make it more user friendly, more intuitive and simpler to use,” Young said.

Chaiwoo Lee, a research scientist at the MIT AgeLab and an industrial engineer, has studied technology adoption among the older population. She’s worked on developing technology with bigger text and buttons to work around the physical limitations that come with aging. She’s noticed that the increase of technology adoption among seniors correlates with the growth of technological products.

“As they look at what others are using, they’re becoming more aware and more likely to adopt new technology,” said Lee. “They’re independent. They’re willing to explore.”

Don Weinstein, Livia Weinstein’s husband, isn't afraid to explore. At 80 years old, the former electronics engineer helps tutor a computer class for individuals who want to develop their online skills. He said he has always been fascinated by technology and followed its advancements over the past several decades.

“I learned from the beginning and it’s been a continuous learning situation because the technology and platforms keep changing,” Don Weinstein said. “It started out with analog and digital computers. Now anything you pick up you don’t think of it as a computer, but as a communication device.”

Olga Ojeva, a 69-year-old active social media user from Maryland, attends computer classes at the Jewish Council for Aging where Don Weinstein teaches. She was initially intimidated by the challenges of navigating online. Now, she is an active user and logs on every day to connect with friends and her younger nieces and nephews.

“The more you do it the more comfortable you will feel about it,” Ojeva said. “I am not a master, but I have become more knowledgeable.”

Keeping up with the changes in technology is a continuous endeavor for individuals both young and old. According to Livia Weinstein, age has little to do with it.

“Sometimes older people are scared to try because they think they’re too old to learn,” she said. “It’s all about your attitude and how you feel.”
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