November/December 2012 Issue
Tech-Savvy Older Adults — Staying Connected, Challenging Stereotypes
Older adults are increasingly interested and involved in using technologies that allow them to stay more connected socially, with family, and with caregiving resources.
Bill Raymond loves his iPad and how it allows him to access the wonders of the Internet from anywhere. He calls it “the most fascinating device I have ever used.”
A couple years ago, Richard Schmidt began using Skype to communicate with a relative in California. Now, he regularly Skypes with relatives not only in California but also in New York, Florida, and Texas.
Raymond and Schmidt are not plugged-in teenagers or young adults raised on a steady diet of technology. They are residents of Greenspring, a retirement community in northern Virginia.
Technology is becoming more entrenched in American life and, contrary to popular perception, older adults are not immune to this phenomenon. Although older adults as a group continue to lag behind their younger counterparts in adopting new technology, an increasing number of elders like Raymond and Schmidt are using the Internet, Facebook, Skype, and other tools to connect with friends, family members, and caregivers. Social workers who ignore the role of technology in older adults’ relationships risk missing an important piece of the puzzle in helping these adults maintain and improve physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
“Most of the time, social workers are not asking older adults—or any of their clients—about their social connections made online or through technology,” says Paul Freddolino, PhD, a professor and the associate director for research and distance education at Michigan State University’s School of Social Work. “If we limit our understanding, we’re missing a dimension that’s important.”
Reaching Out With Technology
There are myriad reasons older adults have turned to technology. Older adults see technology as a tool for connecting with family and friends, developing new friendships, exploring options for entertainment and hobbies, accessing support and information about health topics, and managing activities of daily life, such as banking and shopping (Blaschke, Freddolino, & Mullen, 2009). And while some older technology users have been long familiar with computers and the Internet, many older adults are acquiring technology skills for the first time as they age.
Companies nationwide are trying to tap into the market opportunities by taking well-known technology modalities, such as social networking, e-mailing, and Internet browsing, and making them “elder friendly.” Freddolino, for example, is providing research support to Connected Living, a Massachusetts-based company that promotes a multifaceted approach to technology engagement among older adults. The company’s approach combines a Web-based social networking and distance-learning platform with programming that includes discussion groups, computer learning curricula, and social clubs. Connected Living has been implemented in 24 states, both in private older adults living facilities and public housing authorities.
“The idea is to help older adults connect with family, other adults, and their communities,” says Sarah Hoit, Connected Living’s CEO. “Just because older adults are living together in a retirement community, that doesn’t mean they’re connected. We find that many [older adults] still don’t know each other in their building, and they isolate [themselves] in their rooms. We built Connected Living to build those bonds.”
Individual social bonds built through technology, in turn, encourage older adults to engage with technologies that are connecting society as a whole, says Cheryl Lewis, MEd, sales manager for Telikin. The Pennsylvania-based firm produces touch-screen computers that come loaded with elder-friendly tools for Internet browsing, video chats, photo sharing, and e-mail. Telikin’s customer base is approaching 15,000; some of the company’s clientele are in their 80s, 90s, or even past 100.
“A lot of our customers are novices, but they hear about things like Facebook and they want to try them out,” Lewis says. “They realize that there are more and more activities that require using a computer.”
Social service agencies also are seeing the potential. Centerstone, a community mental health center serving clients in Indiana and Tennessee, recently launched v-recover.com to provide online tools that allow clients and potential clients to participate in moderated discussions and live chats, learn about community resources, and request appointments. Clients accessing the private side of the site can create personal calendars, monitor their recovery plans, and track health information such as medications, allergies, and appointment notes.
Although v-recover.com is open to people of all ages, it has been especially popular among older adults, says Linda Grove-Paul, LCSW, Centerstone’s director of addiction and forensic services.
“[Older adults] may need services like this more than other groups,” she says. “They’re often not as included in these types of networks as are other groups.”
Although many barriers such as cost of Internet access, equipment that is not user friendly, and fear of failure exist for older adults who want to learn about technology, there are indications that many older adults continue to hold positive attitudes toward technology or at least accept that it is crucial to participating in society. A survey of residents of an independent living facility in the Midwest revealed that between 55% and 70% owned at least one computer and 57% used a computer several times per week (McMurtrey, Downey, Zeltmann, & McGaughey, 2011). Older adults participating in a series of focus groups in the South reported more positive attitudes about technology than negative ones (Mitzner et al., 2010).
In her work at Greenspring, Sue Franke, LCSW, sees older adults yearning to be more technologically active, whether that involves accessing the Internet so they can communicate with family, taking part in bowling tournaments via Nintendo’s Wii gaming system, or helping at the community’s television station.
“The residents are so eager to learn about the new technologies, and they embrace the challenge of learning about new technologies,” says Franke, Greenspring’s lead independent living social worker. “They’re right there, clamoring to be on the edge of what’s going on.”
What actually may be keeping some older adults from embracing technology is the way information about it is disseminated, Hoit says. While a video tutorial or phone support may be sufficient for younger learners, older adults need something more. It is the combination of the technology with the human interaction provided by instructors and fellow users that makes the difference.
“All of the sudden, these [older adults] realize someone cares about them, that they are important and that there’s a vibrant community they can be a part of,” she says. “It breaks the barriers for those who have been written off.”
Social workers helping older adults learn new technologies need to keep in mind the adage of meeting clients where they are, Grove-Paul says. It’s important to acknowledge that many older adults may have had negative prior experiences with technology or feel that they don’t have the skills to master technology.
Schmidt, who teaches computer classes at Greenspring, says the key is keeping it relevant and simple. “When they are ready to learn, don’t scare them off by overwhelming them with information,” he says. “Show them how to do the things they want to do. … When teaching, have plenty of patience, talk slowly and distinctly, repeat, and use hands-on practice.”
Schmidt’s experience demonstrates that another potentially effective tool in empowering older adults to use technology is asking technologically savvy older adults to teach their peers. A study of a peer tutor model designed to teach older adults about information and communications technologies found that participants reported a significant and consistent increase in their confidence about completing computer-related tasks and using technology tools such as e-mail, the Internet, and online chat rooms (Woodward et al., 2012).
A Continuing Issue
Social workers must remain aware that, although a growing number of older adults are accessing new technologies, there are many who are denied this access because of poverty, geography, or lack of skills, Grove-Paul says. Social workers should continue to push for development of technology infrastructure and a leveling of the playing field between the technology “haves” and “have-nots.”
These issues will not go away for social workers; in fact, they are likely to increase as the baby boomer cohort ages. Unlike many of today’s older adults, baby boomers are used to technology being a part of their everyday lives and will want that to continue into retirement, Freddolino says.
“Baby boomers are going to demand more technology-related services such as electronic medical records,” he says. “A 55-year-old, in 10 years’ time, is not going to be happy having to repeat their medical history to each doctor they see. They know the technology to address that issue is out there, and service providers are going to have to be much more responsive to those demands.”
— Christina Reardon, MSW, LSW, is a freelance writer based in Harrisburg, PA, and a contributing editor at Social Work Today.
McMurtrey, M. E., Downey, J. P., Zeltmann, S. M., & McGaughey, R. E. (2011). Seniors and technology: Results from a field study. The Journal of Computer Information Systems, 51(4), 22-30.
Mitzner, T. L., Boron, J. B., Fausset, C. B., et al. (2010). Older adults talk technology: Technology usage and attitudes. Computers in Human Behavior, 26(6), 1710-1721.
Woodward, A. T., Freddolino, P. P., Wishart, D. J., et al. (2012). Outcomes from a peer tutor model for teaching technology to older adults. Ageing and Society, 1-24.
Caregiver Support Through Technology
Several recent research articles have featured examinations of technological applications—particularly online applications—designed to bring caregivers together to share information, create social connections, and provide emotional support. Among these articles are the following:
• A literature review by Perkins and LaMartin (2012) analyzed the Internet as a source of social support for aging caregivers of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities—caregivers who are increasingly faced with the physical and mental health challenges that accompany aging. The authors identified several potential advantages of Internet-mediated communication over traditional support groups, such as not needing to be concerned about transportation or time barriers and the chance to reach a larger group of helpful members. The authors also posited that technology can provide an opportunity for caregivers and their care recipients to deepen their bonds by learning new computer skills together.
• Marziali and Garcia (2011) compared the stress levels and health status of dementia caregivers who participated in an online chat support group with caregivers who participated in a video conferencing support group. Members of the video conferencing group showed significantly greater improvement in mental health status than those in the online chat support group, and their improvements in levels of self-efficacy, neuroticism, and social support were associated with lower levels of stress related to care recipients’ cognitive decline.
• A study of online health forums in the Netherlands (Tanis, Das, & Fortgens-Sillmann, 2011) found that active participation in such forums (e.g., posting messages) ameliorated the effects of caregiver stress on well-being, while simply visiting such forums did not.
Companies around the country are trying to reach out to caregivers with technology tools designed to reduce the strain of caring for a loved one. One such company is San Francisco-based CareLinx Inc., which provides an online tool to help family members connect with qualified caregivers, conduct video interviews with them, set up schedules and invoices online, and collaborate about care. The idea is to give caregivers direct access to tools that they traditionally would have only by working with an agency, says Sherwin Sheik, CareLinx’s president and chief executive officer. “We wanted to give families tools to empower them and make the market more efficient,” he says.
Empowering families also is the goal of New York-based CarePlanners. The service connects families with social workers, nurses, or other professionals who help them coordinate care and navigate insurance issues. In addition, the company offers an online platform families can use to upload medical documents, access information about medications, and generate healthcare reports that can be given to doctors.
At least one-third of CarePlanners’ clients contact the company because they are interested in services for older adults, says Rachel Becker, LMSW, one of the company’s care planners. “The thing we’re able to give back to our clients is their time so they can love the person who is the patient,” she says. “We free up the time to let the caregiver be who they are.”
Perkins, E. A., & LaMartin, K. M. (2012). The internet as social support for older carers of adults with intellectual disabilities. Journal of Policy and Practice in Intellectual Disabilities, 9(1), 53-62.
Tanis, M., Das, E., & Fortgens-Sillmann, M. (2011). Finding care for the caregiver? Active participation in online health forums attenuates the negative effect of caregiver strain on wellbeing. Communications, 36(1), 51-66.