The Internet can reduce isolation among seniors

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Gordon Schenk
Gordon Schenk

By 2050, the number of individuals using paid long-term care services either at home, residential care or care homes will likely double from 13 million to 27 million people. This estimate is influenced by a growth in the population of older people in need of care.

While we are often concerned about the physical wellbeing of older people (slips, trips and falls), we tend to overlook major issues like mental health and social interaction. Social isolation is a very real threat to the health and wellbeing of many older adults. Several studies have found that the effects of loneliness and social isolation are comparable to that of smoking five cigarettes a day. So why is it that in an era of technology and connectivity that social isolation is such a large problem?

It is estimated that there are over 3 billion people using the internet worldwide. In the USA ,around 58% of older adults (65-plus) use the internet, compared with 96% of young adults.

That means that at least 40% of older adults in the USA are not connected to the internet and are facing a social and generational divide – as younger generations tend to overly rely communication via the internet.

Furthermore, of the 58% of older adults who use the Internet, only 35% use social media. This can be explained by the lack of tailored content and non-engaging conversations that are taking place on social media platforms dominated by a younger demographic. 

A study conducted by Sentab, a social network optimized for use with older adults and their family members, shows that older adults have more interest in communities that are organized around topics of interest such as well-being, travel, shopping, hobbies and that convey some educational content.

Digital connectivity is not the only solution for combating loneliness. Loneliness is not indicative of the number of social connections, but also the meaningful deep relations with other people. The balance between social networks and real life interaction has to be considered. It is vital that we do not become so focused on tech-based solutions that underlying issues are not addressed. 

An ongoing study conducted by Sentab shows that using technology that spoke to older adults has shown improvements in decreasing social isolation and increasing community engagement. It is vital that we design technologies that are engaging for older adults but at the same time utilize modern conventions.

Along similar lines, long-term care providers have many demands, including in evaluating their budgets. It makes sense to supplement conventional face-to-face services with tech-based solutions. Remote visitation, remote monitoring via a smart environment and prompt intervention capabilities would help reduce operation costs.

Sentab aims to be a bridge between the divide between social networking and real-life community engagement for seniors. What social networks and digital technology can achieve is lowering the barriers caused by physical inability to meet other people, or psychological barriers to engage in conversations with people who may share the same interests.

Gordon Schenk is the Senior Vice President Business Development at Sentab.

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