The Benefits of Social Media for Healthy Aging

During the holidays, seniors spend quality time with their loved ones and friends.  Afterwards, it’s critical that seniors continue building and engaging in social relationships.  Social relationships are vital to our well-being, but they don't just boost happy feelings — interaction with others changes a person's physiological state, too, playing a critical role in health maintenance. Social engagement not only improves mood and life satisfaction, but it also helps regulate blood pressure and cortisol as well as lower inflammation in the body. Unfortunately, later in life, opportunities for socialization often decrease, especially for seniors who have functional limitations or live alone. Social media, however, may help prevent this decrease. The benefits of social media for seniors are now the subject of abundant clinical research, and early findings show that it can improve senior health as well as their safety.

The Risks of Social Isolation

Seniors often face the loss of spouses and friends along with experiencing a decline health and function, both of which can contribute to feelings of isolation. The negative effects of decreased senior socialization and isolation are well documented, including lowered immune system strength and decreased motivation to stay independent and healthy. Social isolation and loneliness are associated with increased mortality, too, as confirmed by a 2012 study released by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research also found that people who lack social contacts may be at an increased mortality risk if they develop acute symptoms because they have fewer loved ones with whom they feel comfortable sharing their medical concerns.

With the rise of social media, however, seniors have the opportunity to connect with their loved ones and widen their social networks like never before, within the comfort of their own homes or elsewhere. Plus, their shared information can extend beyond words of conversation: Many social networking sites provide the ability to share photos, videos, and articles, and social applications such as Skype and FaceTime allow real-time video calls from computers, mobile phones, or tablets.

Encouraging your senior patients to use social media can bridge the social connection gap that many of them may face. Here's why you should help them log on — and how to help them do it.

The Benefits of Social Media for Seniors With Chronic Medical Conditions

Let's consider Nancy, a 78-year-old widow who lives alone, for example. She attends a weekly book club, goes for a walk with a neighbor four days a week, and is a member of her local community board. Nancy is connected to her community, socially engaged, and physically active. That changes one morning when she has a dizzy spell after getting out of bed and falls, fracturing her spine. After a stay in the hospital and then in a rehabilitation center, she is discharged home — but her strength and mobility are not what they were before her fall, and she now experiences chronic back pain. As a result, Nancy may become mostly homebound, receiving physical therapy at her home and having an aide cook and clean for her. While friends and family might visit, staying home means that Nancy's social sphere could shrink. She might not think she has anyone with whom to discuss her condition or potential medication side effects and be reluctant to call her doctor. As her weekly commitments and ties to her community fall away, she may feel disconnected from the world and her support system. That puts her not only at risk for depression, but also puts her at risk for cardiovascular disease, infectious illness, cognitive decline, and mortality.

Consider how different Nancy's life could be if she looked forward to weekly Skype calls with her grandchildren, logged onto Facebook to crowdsource a question about a medication side effect, or joined an online support group for seniors with chronic pain. She would help satisfy her need for social contact and gather helpful information to manage her condition.

Tobi Abramson, a psychologist with a specialty in gerontology and New York Institute of Technology's director of mental health counseling, says that if an older adult can get past the perception that he's too old to learn to use social networking sites, they can offer him access to helpful information, resources, and people he might not otherwise have.

"One of the most important tenets of aging well is being connected to others," says Abramson. "Membership and belonging is a huge buffer for physical ailments. You may have an ailment but cope better if you belong to a group where you're interacting with other people, and social media can provide a really important avenue to do that."

The Use of Social Media for Medical Discussion

Early research demonstrates that social media can provide exactly that kind of help for seniors. A 2013 review of existing studies released by the University of Luxembourg reports that the use of social media by older adults can offer valuable additional support in cases of sickness and disease, specifically, and that it should be considered for use in clinical practice.

According to Dr. Anja Leist of the University of Luxembourg's research unit, seniors can use social media to access health information on prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of specific conditions and disorders, as well as to exchange ideas with other patients regarding disease management. She also points out that social media can be a boon to seniors' mental health and help relieve stress — especially if they are lonely — by connecting them to loved ones and introducing them to new people. "Other positive consequences [of social media engagement] are that lonely older adults can overcome loneliness through contact to family and friends and other users with similar interests," says Leist.

The report proposes several uses for social media in clinical practice, including healthcare advice to patients regarding treatment options and risk factors, diet, and lifestyle recommendations to cope with different conditions, and even patient-doctor or patient-nurse discussion boards to facilitate communication opportunities. While these don't currently exist, they are the subjects of clinical research and may find their way into the healthcare space in the future.

The Benefits of Social Media for Emotional Health

The benefits of social media extend to seniors across demographics and diverse life situations, not just seniors who are homebound or managing medical conditions.

Dr. Larry Rosen, professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills and author of iDisorder, says that social media use can be uplifting for seniors no matter their circumstances, because it has the power to increase their sense of empathy.

"Virtual empathy isn't as good as a hug, but it can certainly make you feel cared for — and that's important," Rosen says. "A great example is birthday wishes. A senior might get three or four birthday wishes from people in her life, but on Facebook, she may have lots of people going out of their way to wish her a happy birthday. And even though she may know they were alerted that it's her birthday, it feels good."

In a Psychology Today article titled "The Power of 'Like,' Rosen says that while his research has found that "real-world empathy is six times more important than virtual empathy in making someone feel supported," being able to express empathy online is the strongest predictor of being able to express it in real life.

The Effects on Cognition and Healthy Aging

The effect on empathy could be one reason why Internet and social media users over the age of 50 may have a reduced chance of suffering from depression. As reported by Psych Central, one study found that seniors who regularly use the Internet are more than 30 percent less likely to be diagnosed with depression compared to those who don't.

In addition to social media's potent effects on mental and emotional health, a 2014 study found that training seniors in the use of social media improved their cognitive capacity and increased their sense of self-competence. In the study, vulnerable older adults between the ages of 60 and 95 received training in the use of computers, the Internet, and social media to assess whether these could be healthy aging tools. Those who were trained reported heightened feelings of self-competence, showed improved cognitive capacity, engaged more in social activity, and had a stronger sense of personal identity.

Presenting Social Media to Seniors in a Positive Light

The great news is that many seniors are already logging on. A Pew Research Center study released in 2012 found that more than half of adults aged 65 and older are online. In addition, 70 percent of senior Internet users go online daily, and a third of these seniors use social networking sites. Abramson notes that many older people are staying in the workforce longer, and they need to stay up-to-date with technology to keep working. She also says that many elect to learn social media to see and hear updates from their children and grandchildren. "Facebook makes it so that long-distance grandparents no longer have to be removed from the family."

Though more and more seniors are becoming savvy Internet and social-media users, not all may be open to these new ways of connecting. Some seniors may think that social media is too hard for them to learn, or they may become frustrated when they don't catch on immediately. Still others might not see a need for it in their lives.

"There is clearly a percentage of seniors who think technology is not for them, but more and more older people are embracing it," Abramson says. "As you age, it does take more time to learn new things, but if you give an older person adequate time to learn a task, they can master it better than a young person. It may take them longer, but research shows they'll master it in a much fuller, more complete way."

As a healthcare professional, knowing what matters to your senior patients — whether that's staying connected to their families, staying cognitively sharp, or getting back in touch with old friends — can help you present social media to them in a positive light. This discussion could give your patients the incentive they need to persist through any challenges they might face when learning these tools.

"When suggesting social media to seniors who are new to it, use language, terms, and descriptors that are familiar to them, and talk about what's meaningful to them," Abramson says. "Say, 'I know you'd like to stay in touch with your children, and I have a great tool for you to try. This is what it takes for you to use it.'"

Resources for Learning Social Media

Many senior centers, community libraries, and retirement communities offer social networking classes. For seniors who want to start with basic computer instruction, those classes are usually offered as well. If your patient is mostly homebound and can't attend a class, there are other ways to learn, including Web tutorials and YouTube instructional videos.

"All they have to do is type 'Facebook for seniors' into Google, and they'll find tons of videos written directly for seniors," Rosen says. "Ample resources are out there, and it's important not to shortchange seniors' abilities to do this." He adds that "the nice thing about videos is that they have a simple interface; there's a play and pause button, and pretty much anyone can figure that part out."

For seniors who don't know much about social media, Abramson suggests finding the right person in their lives who would be willing to introduce it. Grandchildren are often a senior's ticket to the information superhighway. "Many seniors are much more willing to try things because their grandchild asked," Ambramson says. If they still don't seem to be warming up to the idea, be patient and circle back to it at a later date.

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