Is Online Socialization Really Socialization?

Spending time with others is crucial for the physical and cognitive health and all-around quality of life of seniors. University of Chicago researcher John Cacioppo even says, “Chronic loneliness belongs among other health risk factors such as smoking, obesity or lack of exercise.”

But many seniors live alone. Mobility challenges, retirement, vision problems, perhaps the loss of spouse and friends—all make it harder to stay connected.

Fortunately, like people of every age these days, many seniors are supplementing in-person social connections with social media and other online technologies. Indeed, Pew Research Center reports that people over 65 are the fastest growing group to take up email, Facebook, Twitter, blogging, Skype and other electronic communications. The question is: Are these forms of communication really effective in meeting the social needs of older adults?

Many experts say yes! While online connections can’t completely take the place of in-person visits, or a hug, or meaningful time spent in the presence of others, studies are showing that it can be a beneficial supplement to more traditional human interaction:

  • Online social contact builds continuity in relationships, allowing for frequent interaction that was not available in the days when letters or long distance phone calls provided the only connection with far away friends and loved ones.
  • Online communications provide intellectual stimulation, keeping seniors in touch not only with friends and families, but with the world at large.
  • These technologies can be a lifeline for those with health problems that keep them confined to home.
  • Seniors who socialize online are also likely to increase their in-person social activities.

In December 2014, University of Exeter researchers reported the results of a two-year experimental program that supplied vulnerable older adults aged 60 to 95 with a computer, broadband connection, and training. Reported the team: “Those trained had heightened feelings of self-competence, engaged more in social activity, had a stronger sense of personal identity and showed improved cognitive capacity. These factors led to overall better mental health and well-being.”

Said senior participant Margaret Keohone, “Having this training changes people’s lives and opens up their worlds, invigorates their minds and for lots of us gives us a completely different way of recognizing our worth as we age.” Keohone said that before she began the program, “I was just slipping away into a slower way of life.”

Families, senior living communities and other organizations that serve the senior population are finding that with a little help getting set up, older adults can take advantage of these tools to feel more plugged in to family and community events.

Copyright © IlluminAge AgeWise, 2015.