Senior isolation occurs for a wide variety of reasons. AARP notes that some seniors may no longer feel comfortable behind the wheel, suffer illness that prevents them from easily leaving the house or provide Alzheimer care for a spouse or other loved one. This can quickly lead to seniors feeling lonely and cut off from friends and family, which can have a major impact on quality of living. Common options for avoiding senior isolation include retirement community living, joining groups and clubs or taking classes to stay socially active. However, a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Exeter found that training the elderly in social media use can also encourage well-being and deter feelings of isolation.
The project, dubbed Age 2.0, was funded by the European Union and took place over two years. Led by the University of Exeter, Age 2.0 also partnered with several health care institutions. Researchers noted that senior isolation is a common problem among an increasingly large aging population. According to a news release by the University of Exeter, by 2060, the percentage of the total population over age 65 will have grown by about 12 percent in Europe alone. However, this trend is also prevalent in the U.S. and other nations. In fact, the United States Census Bureau reports that between 2012 and 2050, the population of adults age 65 or older is predicted to double.
The growing aging population suggests that social isolation could become a larger issue for seniors. However, researchers of the study believe that providing seniors with better access and knowledge of computers and technological means of connecting could play a major role in keeping seniors socially active and sharp. Psychologist Dr. Thomas Morton, who led the project, explained:
"Human beings 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. People who are socially isolated or who experience loneliness are more vulnerable to disease and decline. For these reasons finding ways to support people's social connections is a really important goal. This study shows how technology can be a useful tool for enabling social connections, and that supporting older people in our community to use technology effectively can have important benefits for their health and well-being."
"Senior volunteers in the study found email and Skype particularly useful."
To conduct the study, researchers recruited 76 volunteers between the ages of 60 and 95, drawing from a community of vulnerable older adults who received care at home or in a senior living community. Half the participants received specialized training in the use of programs such as email, Skype and Facebook, and a broadband connection so that they could easily access the Internet. These volunteers received a three-month training period and were allowed to keep the computer for one year total. The other half served as a control group and received their usual care regimen.
The team found that those who received the training seemed more confident and enthusiastic, and particularly found email and Skype useful. While fewer volunteers found Facebook to be worthwhile, some found that it was a great means of keeping in communication with grandchildren. Moving forward, researchers, tech firms and health care providers will have to work together to develop intuitive computers that are easy to use and accessible to an aging population. In time, this technology could eventually become an important tool in preventing senior isolation and offer stronger networking options for both those in assisted living retirement communities and seniors living independently.