Using the Internet to reduce depression

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Elizabeth Leis Newman
Elizabeth Leis Newman

When I saw the headline “Internet use can help ward off depression among elderly,” I figured it was an article written by the owners of It's Never 2 Late, Linked Senior or another vendor advocating for increased technology use in long-term care.

But no, it's real actual science, from Michigan State University, where investigators found that Internet use among seniors can reduce the chances of developing depression by more than 30%.

In an era where long-term care facilities are being scrutinized for medication use among residents, that's enough to start weighing the cost-benefit analysis of upgrading one's Wi-Fi system or loaning out iPads.

MSU professor and lead author Shelia Cotten, Ph.D., says the study reflects how “ it's all about communication,” for seniors. We had a conversation about it while she was at the airport, preparing to fly and do more research. Cotten and her colleagues analyzed thousands of seniors' interactions over eight years, making it one of the larger studies to look at the link between watching cat videos and preventing depression. (I'm kidding, obviously, as the Internet also is for looking at photos of celebrities).

In truth, it's hard to know what the seniors were using the most during their time on the Internet because of the way the survey question was phrased (although further research suggests email was likely the top benefit). In the study, published in the Journals of Gerontology, Cotten also examined how depressed people were before they started using the Internet, an important distinction. Nothing can be a cure-all for a depressed person, but Internet use did reduce depression even when controlling for a prior depressive state, she found.

Another factor is that the number of people in a household affected depression rates; the largest reduction in depression was for older adults who were living alone. This provides some evidence that jumping onto the Internet can remediate social isolation and that “Internet use helps to abate loneliness,” Cotten told me.

What may be even more relevant to long-term care providers is Cotten's work examining Internet use in assisted living and CCRC communities in Alabama, where seniors were followed for over a year. The average age of the residents was 82, and it “was all about email, and playing games,” she said. Seniors also loved Google Street View to look at places where they had lived before, or for finding websites for churches or community groups where they used to belong.

“It can be a way to help maintain relationships and to increase health and well-being,” she said.

In addition to the hardware basics for a community — the need to install Wi-Fi access and passwords, whether a community needs a computer lab — Cotten says the best thing for administrators to keep in mind is helping seniors learn how to use the Internet in a fun and safe way.*

“They don't want to feel like they're stupid,” she warned. “Do repetition.”

She also cautioned that in both studies, excessive Internet use is unwise.

“Everything in moderation,” she said. “[Residents] still need face-to-face interactions.”


*One way to help with training is to involve high school or college volunteers, an experience chronicled in the documentary Cyber-Seniors. While I'm worried, based on watching the trailer, that the format may be “look at these adorable old people,” I'm interested in the journey of how a group of seniors learned to use computers. A list of screenings includes the LeadingAge Technology Summit in Missouri in May and the LeadingAge PA 2014 conference in June. If you see it, let us know your thoughts.

Elizabeth Newman is Senior Editor at McKnight's. Follow were @TigerELN. 

Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.