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 More Seniors Welcome Virtual Socializing

According to a new survey, senior residents aren’t likely to be afraid of a mouse unless it has fur and four paws. Increasingly, says Michigan State University researcher William Chopik, PhD, older Americans are not only comfortable using computers but they are discovering the joys of social media.
In a survey of 600 older Americans with an average age of 68, more than 95 percent of respondents said they were either “somewhat” or “very” satisfied with social technology, while 72 percent said they weren’t opposed to learning to new technologies.
For older adults, especially those who are isolated and can no longer travel or socialize as much as they had in the past, suggests Chopik, social media can be a powerful way to communicate with friends and family and feel connected with the world at large. “They reap the benefits right away,” he says. In his study, he found that social media use was connected with better physical and mental health and reduced levels of depression.
“A lot of older adults are self-conscious about struggling with technology, but they recognize the benefits of using it and are eager to learn,” Chopik tells Provider. Assisted living and skilled nursing center staff can help increase residents’ comfort with social media and computers. “Don’t just throw technology at them or put out a computer and expect them to jump onto Facebook or Twitter,” he says. Instead, “Help them understand how to use the various social media outlets,” he says.
It is important for residents to understand the etiquette of social media. “Caution them not to ‘friend’ or communicate with people they don’t know, and encourage them to be protective of personal information, even if they think someone is trustworthy,” Chopik says. “Educate them about what appropriate behaviors are on social media,” he adds.
For example, a good rule of thumb is that you don’t say anything on social media that you wouldn’t say publicly. It also is important for residents to understand that some people can be cruel, vulgar, and unkind on social media sites, and that it is best to ignore such comments or postings. Encourage residents to contact the activities director or other staff member if they are concerned about or uncomfortable with an interaction they have with someone on social media, Chopik advises. They also should be encouraged to report anyone who tries to get them to reveal private information such as bank account or credit card numbers or passwords, he says.
Once residents get started on social media and start to feel more confident using it, they can connect with family and friends. Staff or volunteers also can work with them to find social groups they may enjoy—such as those devoted to certain kinds of music or movies. “This is a great use of social media in this setting. It can provide connection to the past and evoke happy memories,” says Chopik.
Family members can keep an eye on an elder loved one via social media and watch for signs that he or she has a problem or might need help. For example, sad, melancholy postings might suggest depression or unhappiness. Nonsensical or unusual postings or a sudden influx of strange new online ‘friends’ may point to early signs of cognitive impairment.
On the flip side, a resident’s Facebook page may suggest unmet needs and interests that the facility can address. For example, if someone posts lots of stories and photos about dogs, he or she might be a good candidate for animal-assisted therapy. A person who ‘likes’ a number of pages and postings about jazz might enjoy an iPod filled with this type of music. “People sometimes post things that they don’t necessarily talk about. You can learn a great deal about someone by looking at their Facebook profile and postings,” Chopik says.
With seniors expressing more interest in social media, facilities should be prepared to accommodate them. Offering free wifi, having computer or social media training workshops, and ensuring residents have access to computers and tablets will help attract tech-savvy residents and help everyone enjoy the benefits of social media.
“We often forget the link between loneliness and health and that when people are isolated, this can lead to depression and a variety of health problems,” Chopik says. “Connection with others—even when it’s virtual—can make a positive difference and contribute to better health and quality of life.”
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