Long-term care residents can benefit from the Internet, too

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Eleanor Feldman Barbera
Eleanor Feldman Barbera
On November 4th, 2008, McKnights.com reported on a study that Internet use stimulates the elderly brain (http://www.mcknights.com/Study-Internet-stimulates-the-elderly-brain/article/120346/). Perhaps you're wondering what your residents would do on the Internet and whether or not it's worth your time and investment to establish access for them.

As a psychologist who has used the Internet extensively with long-term care residents of all ages, I've found that every resident I've taken to the computer room has been thrilled to see what all the fuss is about and amazed at the possibilities offered to them. Below are a half-dozen ways I've used the Internet with my residents. Given proper instruction, these interventions can be carried out by staff members, a resident's family, volunteers, and/or the residents themselves.  

1. Psychoeducation regarding illness

Often residents are given diagnoses, but little information about them, leaving them confused or upset, which sometimes results in noncompliance with medication and care.  I often search for a resident's illness with them on the computer, and discuss the symptoms and treatment, which enhances cooperation with medical staff.  Some residents are more receptive to information coming from a "neutral" source than from their own caregivers, and most residents appreciate a print-out of information they can refer to over time.  Posting a list of illnesses and the Web addresses of important sites near the computer would facilitate this process (eg., The American Diabetes Association, the Amputee Coalition of America, etc).

2. Support regarding illness


Most of the residents deal with their illnesses in isolation, when there are many avenues of support available to them on the Internet.  Having the opportunity to "discuss" their concerns anonymously with peers can often be more effective than trying to generate a conversation between two or more residents at the nursing home, due to discomfort at revealing personal information.  At strokenetwork.org, for example, stroke survivors can "meet" other survivors online and get information and emotional support, as can their caregivers.  To find the appropriate support groups, enter the name of a particular illness and "support" into the browser window and look around from there.  Another option:  Look for a Yahoo group about the illness and sign up the resident after establishing a free email account through resources such as Yahoo or Google.

3. Connection with family and friends

Why should residents have to limit themselves to family visits or phone calls when most of the rest of the country is communicating via e-mail or a social networking site such as Facebook or MySpace?  I've established e-mail accounts for octogenarians to help them keep up with the grands, and a free Facebook page would accomplish the same thing with a bit more zing.

4. Reminiscence


I once worked with a terminally ill 88-year old man who'd left Barbados in his 30s and had never realized his dream of seeing his country again.  Imagine his expression as I entered "Barbados" into Google Images and up popped photos of the country he thought he'd never be able to see again.  This intervention generated a flood of memories and a profound sense of relief and closure.  Reminiscence could also be conducted in a group format, with connection to a large screen, so that residents should share with others information about their home countries or hometowns.

4. People search


One of my favorite things to do with residents on-line is to find their long-lost friends and relatives.  For example, through the Internet white pages, I helped one extremely lonely and depressed resident find a friend with whom he lost touch sixty years ago.  They are now enjoying an exchange of letters and photos, and my patient has something else upon which to focus besides his poor health and lack of visitors.

5. Fun and miscellany


Acting under the theory that doing something enjoyable will begin the upward spiral out of depression, I've occasionally brought a resident to the computer to listen to their kind of music (try shoutcast.com), to check out the latest fashions, or to see photos of famous movie stars (Google Images). Once a 97-year old Panamanian resident told me she'd felt unattractive all her life because she thought her lips were too big.  "Oh, no," I told her, "your lips are considered beautiful and the height of fashion."  She believed me after I clicked on Google Image photos of Angelina Jolie.

With access, instruction, assistance, and encouragement, I foresee residents of the future getting high school and college degrees online, learning languages, and participating more actively in the political process.  To continue to the discussion, visit me at mybetternursinghome.blogspot.com or reach me at efeldmanbarbera@nyc.rr.com.

Eleanor Feldman Barbera, PhD, the author of The Savvy Resident's Guide, is an accomplished speaker and consultant with over 16 years of experience as a psychologist in long-term care. This blog complements her award-winning website, MyBetterNursingHome.com, which has more on how to create long-term care where EVERYBODY thrives.
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