Social media is often criticized for polarizing its audiences, and making us feel lonelier as we jealously watch the lives of others unfold. But remember, social media was designed as a tool to bring us closer together, and if used responsibly, for the right applications, it could make us feel more connected than lonely.
One population could especially benefit from the integration of social media: the elderly, and those in nursing homes.
Loneliness and Old Age
Loneliness is a massive problem for older populations in the United States. More than 28 percent of people ages 65 or older live alone, with those numbers increasing with age, and since more and more adults aren’t having children, there are fewer family members to provide immediate support and care.
Seniors who live alone are at significantly increased risk of mortality. This is attributable to several potential causes; acute symptoms may develop quickly, and without someone to address them, they could lead to death. Plus, loneliness is associated with a higher health risk than obesity or smoking; lower rates of socialization lead to higher rates of mental health issues, and potentially, lower rates of self-care.
As people get older, it’s also harder to meet new people, or engage with people you’ve known in the past; elderly populations aren’t as mobile as younger populations, and there aren’t as many opportunities to forge new connections.
Why Assisted Care Isn’t Enough
Nursing homes and other assisted living facilities attempt to give elderly residents more access to the social activities they need to stay connected, but these aren’t without their flaws. In most of these living situations, elderly people almost exclusively interact with other elderly people, and the same people, day after day. Plus, some nursing homes don’t provide the level of interaction and care necessary to mitigate the effects of social isolation; even a single fall could be disastrous if neglected by an attendant.
Social media is a valuable alternative for a handful of key reasons:
- Socializing with other people is almost always valuable for your health, and in the absence of other forms of interaction, social media can serve as a viable substitute. For example, a senior who has difficulty walking long distances and can’t drive on their own can still hold ongoing conversations with their loved ones. Anyone with a smartphone and/or an internet connection can hypothetically be involved.
- Most major social media platforms are entirely free to use. There’s no need to pay for someone’s time or attention; even without existing contacts, a senior could easily find other people to have a conversation with.
- Online exposure introduces seniors to a diversity of other people. Rather than being in close quarters with the same peers every day, they can branch out to people from different backgrounds and of different ages and feel more connected with the world.
Technology use among seniors is increasing, but remains a sticking point for many elders. Only 42 percent of Americans older than 65 own a smartphone, with percentages declining with age. And speaking anecdotally, older populations may find it more difficult to learn how to use social media apps than younger populations. If someone can’t figure out how to access and use an app effectively, they’ll clearly miss out on the benefits.
The obvious solution is to educate seniors on how to use smartphones and social media apps effectively, but this comes with challenges of its own; if a senior is especially lonely, with no family members or caretakers to provide them support or company, by definition, there won’t be anyone to teach them the basics. An alternative solution would be to develop a social media app geared toward senior learn ability, but without an existing target audience to take advantage of it, few developers would be incentivized to do this.
In any case, social media does have the power to at least alleviate, if not resolve the loneliness epidemic among senior citizens. Teaching the basics to the elderly people in your life could dramatically improve their mental health—and keep them connected well into old age.