Seniors and Caregivers Connect Online

There’s a pervasive notion out there that older people can’t, or don’t want to, use computers.  Facebook fan pages like I Hate Teaching Old People How To Use Computers, boasting over 200 members, Yahoo! chat forums, the Lifestyle section of some newspapers and guests at cocktail parties can all be counted on for stories of someone’s mother/grandfather/elderly neighbor messing up when it comes to computers and getting online.  These anecdotes spread and grow and eventually morph into a general perception that seniors and technology don’t mix.  The reality, however, isn’t so clear-cut.

Given the opportunity, seniors can and will use computer technology in much the same way their younger counterparts do.  A 2004 study, for example, found that older US Web users do product research (66%), purchase goods (47%), make travel reservations (41%), visit government Web sites (100%), look up religious and spiritual information (26%) and do online banking (20%).

What does set older and younger computer users apart, however, is their ability to get-online in the first place.  Seniors are much more likely to be grappling with vision loss, hearing loss, cognitive impairment and diminished motor skills, all of which create barriers to getting online.

Why Is It So Important That Seniors Get Online?

When Cora McCune’s husband passed away, her family became worried about her being on her own.  Phone conversations were beginning to get difficult for Cora yet her children needed an easy way to check in with her everyday.  The solution was to set Cora up with a computer and email account.

Connected individuals are healthier and happier than their non-Internet using counterparts.  The evidence is compelling.  Those who connect with family, friends and the wider community via email and the Internet are less likely to suffer from depression.  Age-related dementia can be slowed, and possibly reversed, when seniors take advantage of computer-based brain-fitness games.  Self-esteem goes up when individuals learn something new.  And some studies suggest that those who take advantage of what the Internet has to offer stay independent longer.  The list goes on and on.

Cora’s computer became her link to the outside world.  It was both a source of entertainment and communication.  When Cora wasn’t using it to play games, do puzzles or read the online version of the local paper, she was emailing her children and grandchildren.  And her grandchildren, who were more comfortable connecting online than picking up the phone, emailed back.  Cora’s computer was like a friend in her room.

Caregivers Benefit When Their Loved One Is Online

Cora’s daughter Sheila was a two-hour drive from her mom.  Being able to check in with her mom every day, even when she couldn’t physically be there, was a godsend.  Being able to videophone her mom using Skype™ technology was especially useful.  “It let me monitor the room,” says Sheila.  “I can listen in, for example, when the TV repair man visits.  And there’s something more intimate about being able to see her.  It’s one thing to talk to someone but being able to actually see how they look is even better.”

There’s also an economic benefit.  In a May 2010 study done by Volunteers of America, 48% of women surveyed say the recent economic downturn has made it harder for them to care for loved ones.   And nearly 80% of those same women believe people should receive paid leave-of-absence to care for an elderly family member.  In Canada, individuals providing four hours or more of care per week were more likely to reduce their work hours, change their work patterns or turn down a job offer or promotion. (From Balancing Career and Care.)

While email, video phone and Internet connections are no substitute for personal interaction, they can provide a cushion that allows caregivers to keep working a little longer while still caring for aging parents.

About the author: Karen Hamilton is a writer and blogger with PointerWare Innovations Ltd. PointerWare is an easy to use computer platform that helps anyone get online and stay connected with family and the wider world. Using PointerWare, anyone can send email messages to loved ones, play brain-fitness games, organize photos and see and talk to their children and grandchildren with voice and video conferencing.  For more information, visit their website at www.PointerWare.com