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Net benefits: why the elderly are going online

Technology is enabling older people to live safe, independent and connected lives in their own home

People over the age of 60 have become the fastest-growing group of computer and internet users. Photograph: Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images

Any time a new social media platform or app comes out, my mind is sufficiently bamboozled. It took me far too long to get my head around Snapchat. In the end, my 13-year-old nephew told me I was too old and wouldn’t “get it”.

“Go back to Facebook, ” he said, which apparently is for dinosaurs like me. I’m 35. I grew up with slow internet, when being social meant talking to friends face to face and the word “app” was not in the dictionary. In a short space of time, technology has moved fast. So fast, that it may be daunting, terrifying and intimating to someone whose confidence in the digital world is decidedly limited.

While Snapchat may have me stumped at my tender age, people over the age of 60 have become the fastest-growing group of computer and internet users, despite changes, updates, new algorithms and faster devices making technology a minefield. This group are fighting any technology fears they may have and taking control of it to ensure they are capable of “aging in place”.

This increasingly common term simply means living independently in a home that meets their needs. Technology has played a vital role in allowing this to happen, with education being equally important as our senior citizens adapt to this fast-paced world. With libraries frequently hosting senior computing training sessions and more elderly friendly apps coming on board, aging in place is more commonplace.

Alice Elliott, aka Fairy Blog Mother and founder of The Commenting Club, provides training for less-than-confident and “slightly older” internet users to encourage them to feel they can accomplish anything they want online. Technology opens up many new possibilities for senior people, says Elliott, which enables them to have more independent lives. With social media, email and Skype, staying in touch is literally a touch of a button when you have the confidence and knowledge of how to use it.

Elliott’s own mother has fearlessly ventured into the internet world, coached by her daughter. “My mother emails her local grocer her order for the week and he delivers it the next day. She emails her letters to the local paper and relishes reading them when they are printed. Mum also does her food-shopping online, to save her hobbling down to the corner shop. Repetition makes the process easier for her, which is quick, simple and very efficient.”

Lack of confidence

What hinders our elderly in taking the step into technology is mostly a lack of confidence, according to Elliott, while poor health, bad eyesight, stiff joints, arthritis and lack of dexterity play a factor too. However, their determination to stay safe, and trust technology to assist that safety, has made them a valued player in the digital world of apps and social media.

With smartphones now having interfaces that support the elderly user, and apps being easier to locate, download and use, the older generation has a world of support at their fingertips. Apps such as the Senior Safety App is used to protect against falls, wandering, online scams and abuse – around the clock. The Medisafe Medication Reminder App does exactly what it says on the tin. There are even blood pressure monitor apps and nifty magnifying glasses apps to make reading easier.

As Elliott highlights, “A big worry is the forever-changing technology updates. For older people, this may seem unnecessary, especially when they’ve only just got used to the original version. It is vital to install the right kind of security software to keep seniors safe from viruses, anti-spyware or worse.” With that in mind, the SafeInCloud Password Manager App diminishes any fears of passwords being misplaced.

Wayne Denner delivers training to practitioners and talks at events for the Senior Citizens Consortium, Neighbourhood Renewal and many more senior citizens and grandparents events on Staying Protected Online and Taking Advantage of Social Media for Older People. He has recognised that the benefits of using technology in our later years encourages healthy, informed and active lives, making everyday life much simpler, maximising elderly independence.

‘Empower older people’

He says: “Adoption of technologies can empower older people, provided they are aware of the risks and protect themselves adequately by keeping up to date with, for example, scams targeting older people.

“Ongoing training and support with learning from caregivers, family and friends will help the elderly gain familiarity and confidence with devices, platforms and apps. Telling them about websites and apps to keep them up to date and protect against fraud and scams can help them become informed and more confident.

“Taking advantage of social media can help older people stay connected and engaged to family, friends and their community and the wider world. As well as assisting their independence, they can gain support from other people in limitless ways when they keep in touch.”

In addition to the plethora of safety, support and communication apps available, Big Red Button is almost a must-have, with a yearly fee of €9.99. It’s a new service, somewhat like the old pendant we all know, but now it goes with you everywhere you go.

“My own mum is in her 80s and still golfs and walks a lot,” says founder Paul Price. “Big Red Button is the only safety support service that can be with her everywhere and anytime because it’s a 24/7 service. If you were out and about, down town, out walking or on your way home from an evening event, having Big Red Button on your phone gives you the reassurance of knowing you always have the option of immediate access to support in every situation. It means you can be independent of family and friends and not feel you are imposing.”