Taking AIM at Elder Mistreatment

Taking AIM at Elder MistreatmentMr. P is a 78-year-old man with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. His son was observed in the pharmacy yelling at him as his Dad kept repeating the same question. The pharmacist called Adult Protective Services (APS), and they discovered that Mr. P lives with his son, daughter-in-law and two small grand-children in a two-bedroom apartment. During the interview, it became clear that the family needed the combined incomes to stay in the apartment. The son and daughter-in-law explained that they are overwhelmed with caregiving needs and admitted that sometimes they yell or “get a little physical” with him.

“It’s So Complicated!”

Though elder abuse (mistreatment) can take many forms, it is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “an intentional act or failure to act by a caregiver or another person in a relationship involving an expectation of trust that causes or creates a risk of harm to an older adult.”

Mistreatment can play out as physical, sexual, emotional or psychological abuse, as well as financial abuse and neglect. Often, older adults are the victims of more than one form of mistreatment, and many cases are not clear-cut, either in determining whether abuse has occurred or in deciding what steps to take once possible abuse is discovered. Many cases involve complicated medical, social, emotional and financial issues that intersect and interact, making it difficult to shape an appropriate response.

The Abuse Intervention Model (AIM)

The AIM model, which can help in situations like Mr. P’s, is a useful tool for identifying multidimensional, modifiable risk factors for elder mistreatment. AIM is a practical framework that allows for targeted and practical individualized intervention to successfully prevent, stop and mitigate elder mistreatment. Mistreatment is multidimensional, made up of complex relationships between risk factors in three broad domains (see Figure 1, above). These domains include the older adult (potential or known victim of mistreatment), the “trusted other” (potential or known perpetrator of mistreatment) and the context in which the mistreatment occurs. One goal of the AIM model is to identify modifiable risk and protective factors in individual cases, thus enabling a practical plan to be developed and implemented.

How Older Adults Are at Risk for Abuse

Many physical or emotional conditions or financial circumstances older adults face increase their susceptibility to mistreatment. Dependence upon another for care or being perceived as difficult to care for are examples of personal characteristics associated with mistreatment.

Functional issues like impaired physical abilities or diminished cognitive abilities can make activities of daily living more difficult for older adults. Physical and-or cognitive limitations can also lead to dependency upon a trusted other for management of finances, transportation, meal preparation, shopping and medication management.

Illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease may cause impairment in executive function, which makes a person an easier tar-get for exploitation. A diminishing ability for self-control can contribute to challenging behaviors, making caregiving more difficult. An elder’s emotional distress and mental illness can lead to emotional dependence—a situation that caregivers and others may resent or exploit.

Caregiving and the “Trusted Other”

Trusted others include family members, neighbors, friends and paid caregivers. Dependence upon the older adult, especially financial dependence, may compel the trusted other to remain in an unwanted relationship. Emotional dependence can lead to conflicted relationships and foster resentment in a caregiver. Mood, substance or personality disorders can compromise caregiver reliability. If a caregiver feels overwhelmed, he or she may be hostile or abusive. Physical impairment and limited mobility also can reduce the caregiver’s ability to provide appropriate care.

The context in which the older adult and trusted other interact can moderate or intensify the risk for elder mistreatment. Social isolation that separates either the older adult or caregiver from supports and resources can exacerbate the risk. Often, the relationship of the vulnerable older adult and the trusted other predates the caregiving phase. The quality of the relationship prior to the caregiving relation-ship can alter the risk for mistreatment. A good relationship can be a protective factor, while a poor quality relationship can increase the risk for mistreatment.

Culture also can influence the perception of elder mistreatment. In some cultures, illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s disease, are considered shameful or embarrassing and may lead to an older adult’s isolation.

Managing Mistreatment Risk

Some risk factors for elder mistreatment are modifiable and some are not. The AIM model can give professionals like medical providers, social workers, APS and law enforcement a framework to assess and identify risk factors for elder mistreatment from the perspectives of the vulnerable adult, the trusted other and the context in which they interact. Once the model is applied to an in- case (such as Mr. P’s), professionals can identify risk factors that can be mitigated and protective factors that can be bolstered.

It seems that Mr. P has experienced emotional mistreatment, and possibly physical mistreatment. His risk factors include cognitive impairment, accompanied by behavior change, dependence on his son for housing and dependence on the family for assistance with daily living activities. Knowing the course of the disease, we can predict that Mr. P’s cognition will become further diminished with time, which correspondingly increases his dependence and elevates his risk for mistreatment.

The trusted others (Mr. P’s son and daughter-in-law) are financially dependent on Mr. P’s income and admit to feeling overwhelmed and stressed by care-giving. The family lives in a cramped apartment with two very young children whose needs are many and may compete with Mr. P’s caregiving needs. Though we don’t know the relationship history of Mr. P and his son, we do know their relationship is currently strained. Additionally, there is evidence that Mr. P’s son has the propensity to be verbally and physically aggressive with his father.

AIM in Action

Though Mr. P’s cognition cannot be substantially improved or reversed over the course of his disease, the AIM model could be used to analyze and improve the situation, as follows:

•  Mr. P’s son and daughter-in-law attended their local no-cost Alzheimer’s Association Savvy Caregiver course. This helped them to understand that Mr. P’s repetitive and bothersome be-haviors were not purposeful, but rather a part of his illness. The family learned strategies to lessen frustration and reduce conflict.

•  A social work referral was made through their area agency on aging. The social worker helped the family receive In-Home Supportive Services (a government-subsidized benefit) several days a week to help with some of the caregiving responsibilities.

•  The family doctor referred the son and daughter-in-law to several sessions of low-cost counseling in which they learned stress-reduction techniques to use when feeling particularly upset.

•  Mr. P’s geriatrician discovered that Mr. P was feeling nauseated and light-headed much of the time, which was exacerbating his agitated behavior. By dis-continuing one medication and reducing another medication’s dosage, he became calmer and more content.

This combination of interventions had a significant impact on decreasing the stress of the family’s situation, and the abusive behavior was drastically reduced.

Source: ASA – American Society on Aging

Do Working Caregivers Provide Less Care for Loved Ones?

There’s a common assumption that when a loved one needs care, family members who do not work outside the home will be first to step up and provide support. Of course, in reality this is not the case. Many other factors come into play as a family’s caregiving arrangement takes shape.

In a series of studies over the past year, the United Hospital Fund and the AARP have been looking at the facts about family caregiving in the U.S. One thing they’ve discovered is that family caregivers today are performing more and more medical and nursing tasks for their elderly relatives. Family members are providing medication management, performing wound care, monitoring their loved ones’ health conditions and operating specialized medical equipment. The researchers also looked at the level of care and number of care hours provided by family members who were also employed outside the home, compared with those who were not. Said Susan Reinhard of the AARP Public Policy Institute, “We expected that caregivers who didn’t have to manage the demands of a job would have more time to take on these challenging tasks—tasks that would make a nursing student tremble—but our data shows that there’s little difference between the two groups.”

Though working caregivers were only one percentage point less likely to be providing this kind of care (45 percent of them, versus 46 percent of non-working caregivers), the percentages diverged dramatically in another category. Said Carol Levine of the United Hospital Fund, “Where we did find a difference was in the stress associated with juggling the demands of caregiving with other responsibilities.” Levine reports that while 49 percent of family caregivers who are not employed report feeling stressed, fully 61 percent of the working caregivers reported such stress.

This study is yet another reminder of how important it is for our nation to support family caregivers, whose unpaid work is worth billions of dollars each year, and many of whom are also productive members of the workforce.

Read the entire study [link to:] on the United Hospital Fund website.

Source: AgeWise reporting on research from the United Hospital Fund and AARP.


Geriatrician Looks at Sensitive Issue of Senior Gun Ownership

In the United States the debate around gun ownership often focuses on teenagers; however, research shows that elderly Americans are the most likely to own a gun and that presents both medical and legal problems for physicians and carers.

Writing in an issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, Dr. Ellen Pinholt explored these issues and proposed a series of “red flag” questions which caregivers must ask.

While there is no upper age limit on owning a firearm, Americans aged over 65 have the highest prevalence of dementia, depression and suicide. Federal law prohibits mentally incompetent persons from possessing a gun; however, this only applies to a formal finding by a court and not necessarily to a physician’s diagnosis of dementia.

Using a series of case studies to explore the medical and legal dimensions of the issue, Dr. Pinholt suggested “5 Ls,” questions about gun ownership which should be asked as routinely as questions about driving.

  1. If there is a gun present, is it LOCKED?
  2. Is it LOADED?
  3. Are LITTLE children present?
  4. Does the gun owner feel LOW?
  5. Is the gun owner LEARNED about how to safely use the gun?

Source: Wiley Online Library News Release; Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 4 June 2014

Learn More

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers a free online brochure, “Firearms and Dementia.”

Raining? Snowing? That’s No Reason to Skimp on Physical Activity

Mom always told us to get outside for some exercise. But if you’re like many of us in the U.S. these days, freezing cold, snow and ice might make it unsafe—at the least unpleasant—to get our workout in the great outdoors.

If it’s too cold, rainy or icy (or in a few months, too hot), it takes a little creativity to be active indoors. The National Institute on Aging (NIA) offers these great ideas for seniors who want to get some exercise even when weather conditions aren’t great:

  • Walk on the treadmill, ride the stationary bike, or use the rowing machine that’s gathering dust in your bedroom or basement. Or use one at a nearby gym or fitness center.
  • Work out with an exercise DVD. You can get a free one from the NIA’s Go4Life program (
  • Go bowling with friends.
  • Join a local mall walking group.
  • Walk around an art gallery or museum to catch a new exhibit.
  • Check out an exercise class at your neighborhood Y or senior center.
  • If you like dancing, take a Zumba or salsa class.
  • Try yoga or Tai Chi.
  • Go to the gym and work on your strength, balance, and flexibility exercises or set up your own home gym. All you need is a sturdy chair, a towel, and some weights. Soup cans or water bottles will do if you don’t have your own set of weights.
  • Go to an indoor pool and swim laps or try water aerobics.
  • How about a game of indoor tennis, hockey, basketball or soccer?
  • Go indoor ice skating or roller skating.
  • Maybe it’s time for some heavy-duty cleaning. Vacuum, mop, sweep. Dust those hard-to-reach areas.
  • Play ping pong with the grandkids.

The NIA reminds us that we’re more likely to exercise if it’s convenient. Put your weights next to the sofa so you can do some lifting while you watch TV. Walk around the house while you’re talking on the phone. Make an extra trip up and down the stairs when you do the laundry.
Visit to find more tips and resources for staying active.

Source: National Institute on Aging, adapted by IlluminAge AgeWise.

Supplements May Contain Dangerous Ingredients

Many seniors take dietary supplements in an effort to improve their health. Some supplements have medical value. But many are worthless, even dangerous. Seniors can be at risk for health fraud by scammers who target people who are at their most vulnerable. These crooks prey on the hopes of those who are experiencing ill health, pain and fear. The companies spend a bundle on infomercials and ads in the back of magazines—often more than they spend on the ingredients that go into their products.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reminds consumers that supplements are not FDA-approved. Consumers should be wary of products that promise fast, easy weight loss or a miracle cure for diseases and conditions such as arthritis, cancer or HIV/AIDS. They should be aware of red flag terms such as “male enhancement,” “anti-aging” and “scientific breakthrough.” Consumer protection experts also warn of pyramid schemes that recruit seniors to invest in worthless supplement products and sales materials.

The hit to your pocketbook isn’t the top danger of these products. Some supplements can endanger your health. It’s important to know that, for the most part, supplements are not regulated, and the FDA only steps in if a safety issue is suspected. Many supplements are produced in unregulated plants, often out of the U.S., with no safety standards or inspections. Some contain substances that have not been tested on humans, as well as pharmaceutical ingredients that should not be available over the counter or have been banned entirely. For example, “all-natural muscle builder” products have been found to contain steroids. Some “Chinese herbal” weight loss pills actually contained sibutramine, a dangerous and banned drug. A recent study appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that even when the FDA orders a recall of supplements containing banned ingredients, manufacturers and dealers regularly ignore the order and these products continue to be sold.

The study authors, from Harvard Medical School, analyzed recalled supplements and found that many remained on store shelves over a year after the recall. Dr. Pieter A. Cohen and his colleagues said, “Action from the FDA has not been completely effective in eliminating all potentially dangerous adulterated supplements from the U.S. marketplace. More aggressive enforcement of the law, changes to the law to increase the FDA’s enforcement powers, or both, will be required if sales of these products is to be prevented in the future.”

For now, it is largely up to consumers to protect themselves. Read up on supplement safety on the FDA website Speak to your doctor before you spend your money on supplements. Following the advice of a trained, licensed healthcare provider is the wisest choice when it comes to making healthcare decisions. Scam artists take advantage of our hopes. But the best source of a sense of well-being comes from knowing we have made educated choices.

Copyright © IlluminAge AgeWise, 2014, with excerpt from the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Bite Into a Healthy Lifestyle

Snacks can be a fun and valuable part of a person’s healthful eating plan – but they can also add unneeded calories, sugar, sodium and fat. During National Nutrition Month, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics offers smart snacking ideas that help everyone “Bite into a Healthy Lifestyle.”

“If you choose carefully, and plan ahead, sensible snacks can be part of any healthful eating plan,” says registered dietitian nutritionist and Academy Spokesperson Isabel Maples. “Snacks can prevent overeating at mealtimes and throughout the day. For children and adults alike, snacks can supply foods and nutrients that we might miss in meals. Snacks especially offer a great way to eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy.”

Each March, the Academy encourages Americans to return to the basics of healthful eating through National Nutrition Month. This year’s theme encourages consumers to adopt a healthy lifestyle that is focused on consuming fewer calories, making informed food choices and getting daily exercise in order to achieve and maintain a healthy weight, reduce the risk of chronic disease and promote overall health.

“A healthy snack can provide an energy boost, and satisfy your midday hunger. If you haven’t eaten for three or more hours, a snack can help bring up your blood sugar level for optimal energy. For older adults with smaller appetites or limited energy, several small meals including snacks may be easier for their bodies to handle,” Maples says.

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Maples offers ideas for biting into healthy snacks:

  • Plan your snacks. “Keep a variety of tasty, nutrient-rich, ready-to-eat foods nearby, for when you need a bite to take the edge off hunger. Then, you won’t be so tempted by less-healthy options from vending machines, convenience stores or the contents of your own kitchen.” Snack ideas include fresh fruit, air-popped popcorn, whole-wheat crackers, dried fruit and nut mixes, almonds and fat-free yogurt.
  • Make snack calories count. “Snack on foods that fill the nutrient gaps in your day’s eating plan. Think of snacks as mini-meals to help you eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy – foods we often don’t eat enough.”
  • Go easy on high-calorie snacks such as chips, candy and soft drinks. “They often contain solid fats, and added sugars. Make these occasional choices that fit your day’s plan.”
  • Snack when you’re hungry – not because you’re bored, stressed or frustrated. “Exercise can actually be a great way to feed those emotional urges.”
  • Snack on sensible portions. “Choose single-serve containers, or put a small helping in a bowl rather than eating directly from the package.”
  • Quench your thirst. “Water, low-fat or fat-free milk and 100-percent juice are just a few options. Flavored waters might be high in added sugars, so check the label.”

Making the right food and nutrition choices is a necessary part of biting into a healthy lifestyle. A registered dietitian nutritionist can help. To learn more and to find an RDN in your area visit

Source: The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals. The Academy is committed to improving the nation’s health and advancing the profession of dietetics through research, education and advocacy. Visit the Academy at

Alzheimer’s Experts Study Controllable Risk Factors

Scientists at the 2014 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference emphasize lifestyle factors.

Each year, leading experts on Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders meet at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, which is the world’s largest gathering of leading researchers, who present the latest information on the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of memory and cognitive disorders.

This information is of interest to anyone concerned about brain health, including older adults and families of people who are living with Alzheimer’s disease. This year, several new studies shed light on risk reduction strategies:

Mentally Stimulating Activities Promote Brain Health

A number of previous studies have suggested that puzzles, games and other activities that make our brains work a little harder could also protect our memory and thinking. Researchers from the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute and the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center presented the results of a study that adds to this understanding.

The scientists studied a group of people at higher risk of Alzheimer’s due to a family history of the disease and/or the APOe4 gene, which is associated with higher risk. They found that the people who often played games, read books or went to museums had greater brain volume in several important regions. According to researcher Stephanie Schultz, “Our findings suggest that for some individuals, engagement in cognitively stimulating activities, especially involving games such as puzzles and cards, might be a useful approach for preserving brain structures and cognitive functions that are vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease.”

Moderate Exercise and Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)

The Alzheimer’s Association says that of all the lifestyle choices we can make, exercise is the best-documented way to promote brain health. At the conference, Mayo Clinic researchers reported the results of a study that specifically looked at the relationship between mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and exercise. Mild cognitive impairment is a condition that causes slight changes in memory and thinking. It may be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease, but not everyone with MCI will develop Alzheimer’s.

The research team, led by Dr. Yonas Geda, reported that physical exercise in midlife and later life was associated with a reduced risk of MCI. They also found that in people who already have MCI, those with a history of moderate exercising during the ages of 50 – 65 had a “significantly decreased” risk of progressing to dementia. Dr. Geda said, “In our studies, we found that physical exercise at various levels, especially in mid-life, is beneficial for cognitive function. These are intriguing results, but they are not yet conclusive. More research is needed to determine the extent and nature of physical activity in protecting against MCI and dementia.”

Brain-Healthy Lifestyle Choices Work Together

There are some risk factors that we can’t do anything about—but certain brain-healthy lifestyle choices are under our control. A team of researchers from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and the National Institute for Health and Welfare in Finland noted that individual studies have looked at the protective effect of individual modifiable risk factors, such as diet, exercise, socialization, social activities and management of heart disease. The team decided to look at the collective effect of all those factors. They studied a group of people age 60 to 77, and reported that those who were encouraged to follow a full set of brain-healthy lifestyle choices performed better on cognitive tests two years later. At the Conference, study author Dr. Miia Kivipelto said, “This is the first randomized control trial showing that it is possible to prevent cognitive decline using a multi-domain intervention among older at-risk individuals.” Kivipelto also noted that the study participants found the experience positive, and only 11 percent dropped out of the study during the two-year period.

These studies are yet another reminder about how important it is to take care of our own health! No matter what your age, take advantage of support resources in your community that can help you get the exercise, mental stimulation, regular healthcare, healthy eating and other activities that lower your own risk.

Source: AgeWise reporting on news releases from the Alzheimer’s Association. Read more about the 2014 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference here [add link to:]

Senior Living Communities Urged to Protect Residents from Financial Exploitation

Older adults are at high risk of financial abuse and scams. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), a government agency that helps consumers take more control over their economic lives, older Americans lose close to $3 billion to financial exploitation each year! The CFPB even calls this threat “the crime of the 21st century.”

Con artists have a wide variety of schemes that take advantage of seniors, and when an older adult has been victimized, the crooks often target the same person again. The perpetrator might even be a family member or other trusted person who is handling or has access to the senior’s money. Seniors who are living with cognitive impairment are at particular risk; even mild cognitive impairment makes it more likely that a person will be victimized.

The CFPB’s Office for Older Americans reports that about half of nursing facility residents and 40 percent of assisted living residents are living with memory loss. According to CFPB Director Richard Cordray, “Financial exploitation and scams can put seniors in danger of losing their housing and nursing care by robbing them of the money to pay for that assistance.” Recognizing the role nursing homes and assisted living facilities can play in protecting vulnerable residents, the CFPB recently released a guide to help staff recognize and report financial mistreatment. The guide, “Protecting Residents from Financial Exploitation” [link to: ] , is for managers and staff who are in a key position to protect the people in their care from theft and fraud.

The guide suggests that senior living organizations follow three R’s:

Recognizing: Facilities are advised to train staff to be aware of red flags, such as unpaid facility bills, disappearance of possessions, frequent checks made out to “cash,” a resident who is distraught after a family member or friend visits, or seeing a previously uninvolved person claiming authority to manage a resident’s finances without proper documentation. Other warning signs include a mailbox full of sweepstakes offers and scams involving free lunches and charity appeals.

Recording: Facility managers should urge staff to talk about concerns and report suspicions. Direct care staff, housekeeping and maintenance staff may be the “front line” in this effort, as they are often most familiar with individual residents and might be present during interactions with visitors. Keep records of these observations; this can assist law enforcement and other first responders.

Reporting: There are specific federal requirements for nursing homes to report financial crimes, including exploitation or theft, directly to law enforcement. Facility administrators should be aware of their state’s reporting requirements.

Visit the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau website ( to download the guidebook [optional link to: ] and to find more resources promoting financial protection for older people. [optional link:]

Source: AgeWise reporting on Consumer Financial Protection Bureau materials.

Information to help protect seniors from deceptive salespersons, scammers and online crooks.

Help Protect Seniors Against Fraud

If it sounds too good to be true….

“You have won…!” “Your name has been selected…!” “Here is your opportunity to buy at a fraction of the cost…!” “Earn thousands a year at home…!”

We are bombarded by solicitations, contest forms and requests for donations—in our mailbox, by phone, in our e-mail, at the front door, in magazines.

Legitimate companies and charities use these sales methods. But so do unscrupulous businesses and con artists. They defraud consumers of billions of dollars every year. And many of their victims are older adults.

Scams and unethical sales methods aimed at older people can cause serious financial loss. Here are just a few types of fraud:

  • High pressure sales (vitamins, magazine subscriptions, etc.)
  • Worthless investments
  • Deceptive “work at home opportunities”
  • Multilevel marketing (pyramid schemes)
  • Sweepstakes and contests that require the “winner” to buy something or make an expensive 900-number call
  • Dishonest contractors or service providers
  • Phony charities
  • “Phishing” and other types of identity theft
  • Quack medical devices or treatments
  • Medical identity theft

Older adults are targeted for a number of reasons. They often have money in the bank. They may be home during the day, with more time to listen to sales pitches. A person who feels lonely and isolated may be an easy mark for a “friendly stranger.” And many older adults find it hard to just hang up on a salesperson. Declining mental or physical condition may also be a factor.

Warn senior friends and relatives about these “red flags”—and be alert for them yourself:

  • You are offered something for nothing.
  • A salesperson is overly friendly and wants to talk about your personal life.
  • You are asked to call a 900-number.
  • You are told you have won a prize…if you buy something, pay “shipping costs,” “gift tax,” etc.
  • You receive an email asking for your personal information (Social Security number, credit card number, bank account PIN, etc.)
  • A “work at home” offer promises big money.
  • You buy vitamins or personal care products from a salesperson—who then offers you the “opportunity” to sell the products as well.
  • A salesperson hesitates to provide information about the company or charity.

How can you avoid being cheated? Comparison shop for price and quality before you decide on a purchase. Deal with reputable merchants who have a long-term interest in maintaining satisfied customers. Read online reviews (keeping in mind that companies sometimes plant good reviews to boost their ratings). Avoid any buying situation where the seller resorts to high pressure sales tactics. Be very cautious about giving out your credit card number or bank account number. Check with your health care provider before purchasing or using medical devices or food supplements. Avoid calling 900-numbers. Never buy anything just to get a free gift. Don’t respond to any e-mail offers. Shred any documents, receipts, etc. that contain personal information, such as social security number, bank account or credit card numbers.

And remember: just because someone wants you to buy something doesn’t mean you have to. Practice saying “no.”

For More Information

The FBI website offers more information on fraud targeting older adults.
The AARP’s scams and fraud update page offers information on protecting yourself against the latest schemes.
To learn more about online fraud, visit the U.S. government’s website.

© IlluminAge AgeWise 2012


The Wired (Older) Generation: Seniors Online

The Wired (Older) Generation: Seniors Online

If you think Facebook, chat rooms, Skype and blogging are only for young people, think again! Today, seniors are the fastest growing group to use social networking and other internet tools for expanding social connections and keeping up with family and friends.

Experts on aging have long known that isolation and loneliness are dangerous for older adults. Staying socially connected improves physical and emotional well-being, increases mental alertness, and encourages a more active lifestyle. New research studies confirm these benefits and more, pinpointing the mechanisms behind the protective properties of human interaction that promote heart health, lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, improve symptoms of depression and minimize the effects of stress.

Yet as we grow older, many of us tend to withdraw from the social events and activities we once enjoyed. Failing health and decreased energy make it harder to get out of the house. Hearing impairment can cause communication frustration and a sense of isolation. The loss of a spouse, children moving away, and retirement from work can all lead to the breakdown of long-time social connections. Can online connections help fill the gap?

Research is underway to find out how effectively online connections meet the social needs of our later years. The study results are largely positive. And one thing is already known: more and more seniors themselves value these new technologies, as evidenced by the numbers using them. An AARP study found that seniors and baby boomers are increasingly social on the Web, joining online communities in increasing numbers, the majority logging on every day. The majority of seniors say that the internet is important in maintaining social relationships.

Are Online Connections the Same?

Online connections can’t take the place of in-person visits, or a hug, or meaningful time spent in the presence of others. Yet more and more studies suggest it can be a beneficial supplement to more traditional human interaction. Online social contact can build continuity in relationships, allowing for daily interaction that was not available to seniors in previous times, when letters or long distance phone calls provided the only connection with far away loved ones. The convenience of email, social networking sites and webcam connections can help take the edge off loneliness. Online communications also have been shown to provide cognitive benefits of intellectual stimulation. These technologies can be a lifeline for those with health problems that keep them confined to home.

Here are some of the ways seniors are staying connected online:


Email remains the most popular online activity for all seniors; according to the Pew report, 86 percent of older internet users communicate in that way. A survey by Evercare showed that even centenarians are using email to exchange messages and photos. There may be a steep learning curve for older adults who aren’t computer-savvy, but “senior-friendly” software and classes are available to help. In many families, members of the younger generation enjoy displaying their skills by providing tech support for grandparents.


More and more seniors are reading the blogs of companies, pundits, healthcare organizations and ordinary people who report on their own lives or a particular topic. Some blogs are like diaries; some are professional; some are more like support groups. Many seniors are creating their own blogs, and older adults are becoming ever more active in the “blogosphere,” posting comments on the blogs of companies, individuals, news media sites and political groups.

Social networking websites

The Pew Research Center recently reported that 34% of people over 65 now use social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Many seniors keep in touch with family, neighborhood and interest groups using these free services, and make new online friends as well. They connect with the millions of businesses, government and senior service agencies and senior living communities that now use social networking sites as an important part of their communications strategy. With hundreds of millions of users worldwide, social networking sites offer a window on the world combined with opportunities for interaction.

Online communities and chat rooms

Online communities are groups of people who exchange messages on websites that offer “forums” or “bulletin boards.” Online communities (also known as “virtual communities”) allow seniors to connect with others who have a shared membership or interest, such as a hobby, favorite TV program, health condition or class reunion group. Longtime friendships have developed over the decades that these communities have existed. Some online communities also offer chat rooms, where participants can have online conversations in real time. AARP and other senior organizations sponsor online communities especially for older adults.
Internet voice and video communication

Seniors are using Skype and other such online services to read a bedtime story to grandchildren, attend a virtual senior center event, and even talk to their healthcare provider. Now that this technology has been with us for a while, studies are confirming that long-distance family connections are enhanced and sustained by frequent virtual contact. Families also report that the connection helps nurture relationships between the generations.