Silver surfers

Posted on 2 March 2015

Social media has many benefits for the elderly, including increased cognitive capacity and an improved sense of self-competence and wellbeing. Here’s why senior citizens are getting tech savvy.

Words Laura Cooke

In a recent study by the psychology department at the University of Exeter in the UK, researchers wanted to see whether access to the Internet would affect quality of life for the elderly. Half of the adults in the study, between the ages of 60 and 95, were given a computer, some basic training on how to use it, and access to the Internet. At the end of the study, the participants who were given the computers recorded better results on various measures – including cognitive skills and feelings of wellbeing.

Programs like Skype and Facebook increase social interaction, an important contributor to wellbeing that tends to decline as we age. ‘People who are socially isolated are more vulnerable to disease and decline,’ said Thomas Morton, lead author on the study. ‘We are social animals and it’s no surprise that we tend to do better when we have the capacity to connect with others. But what can be surprising is just how important social connections are to cognitive and physical health.’

Margaret Keohone, one of the study participants, said: ‘Having this training changes people’s lives and opens up their worlds, invigorates their minds and, for many of us, gives us a completely different way of recognising our worth as we age. I was just slipping away into a slower way of life.’

You’re not too old (for anything!)
Award-winning author and journalist Geoff Dalglish (66) says, ‘I was a little slow to embrace Internet technology and social media initially but now see it as an invaluable tool. I use Facebook extensively to get my messages out to the world and network with contacts.’

Geoff has authored numerous books, was the founding editor of Drive and Drive Out, and recently walked 16 000km across the world sharing messages about treading more lightly upon the earth. This year he’ll be taking part in a 55-day walk across California as part of a major project to raise global awareness around issues relating to water.

‘Many older folks are nervous of technology, but it is surprisingly simple to grasp and it’s invaluable in my everyday life,’ says Geoff. ‘I set up as a communication tool – having a website was a given. I love being in contact with my network of friends via Facebook and emails.’

That said, though, Geoff is aware of the limitations of social media. ‘I try to limit the time I spend staring at screens so that I can deepen my nature connection outdoors, recognising that so many of us (and especially young people) are suffering a disconnection from the healing and nurturing embrace of the natural world.’

Tech savvy
Karen Smit, Vodacom product manager for specific needs, says: ‘In general, marketing of phones focuses on young people and the benefits for the elderly are not always properly explained.’ But there are lots of basic, easy-to-use phones out there! Here are her top picks for over-60s and over-75s:

Phones for the over-60s
‘Over-60s are tech savvy and love the latest smartphones,’ says Karen. ‘And these phones already have built-in features that benefit senior citizens – such as adjusting font size and boosting screen brightness. Plus, many of the phones are compatible with certain hearing aids. Many over-60s continue to work, so a data-enabled smartphone meets their requirements for email and Internet.’

Phones for over-75s
These customers need basic phones for calls and SMSs, such as the Alcatel 2000, which has large buttons and simple functions. ‘They did not grow up with technology, so the phone should be easy to use,’ says Karen. ‘A cellphone is their lifeline for staying in touch with family and friends.

Top social network? Facebook
‘Facebook is the only social media platform with measurable take-up by over-65s. At first it was a way to connect with their children and grandchildren, but now people in this segment are also using it to keep in touch with one another’s lives,’ says Arthur Goldstuck, MD of World Wide Worx.

Did you know?

32,2 million is the number of cellphone owners in SA

77% of over-50s own a cellphone

20% of over-50s use mobile data

49 minutes is the average time South Africans spend on their smartphones every day

#1 WhatsApp is the most popular app in SA

The information provided in this article was correct at the time of publishing. At Mediclinic we endeavour to provide our patients and readers with accurate and reliable information, which is why we continually review and update our content. However, due to the dynamic nature of clinical information and medicine, some information may from time to time become outdated prior to revision.

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