Lisa Price, M.D.

No matter where older adults live — in their own homes or in a senior living community — there’s an excellent chance that they have access to social media. Ten years ago, few of those aged 65 years or more used social networking sites such as Facebook. By 2015, 35% were online, and this number is only expected to increase.

A recent study published in the journal PNAS found that Facebook interaction among older adults is doing more than just helping them while away the time.

Loneliness in older adults

Older adults often report they are lonely and feel isolated in their lives and in the communities in which they live. An Archives of Internal Medicine article found that 43% of those aged 60 or more reported feeling lonely. Delving into the numbers, researchers were able to pinpoint two issues facing older adults: 32% reported lacking companionship, and 25% said they felt left out.

Face-to-face interaction long has been the gold standard for socializing, decreasing loneliness and isolation in older adults. Our culture is fast-paced and ever-changing, and our means of communicating is changing along with it. Researchers have taken notice of the continuing growth of social media, the ubiquitous nature of smartphones and tablets that help people connect to the internet, and the fact that people around the world easily can interact through the technology.

Researchers who published in Computers in Human Behavior studied the ways older adults use Facebook and discovered that approximately 22% use the social networking site to “stay connected with family.” Social bonding, chosen by older adults as the central reason to use Facebook, is important in helping to reduce the isolation, many believe.

Lowering the risk of mortality

The recent study published in PNAS, looking at the aggregated data of 12 million Facebook users, addressed the possibility that participating in the social network would lower the risk of mortality.

“The results show that receiving requests to connect as friends online is associated with reduced mortality, but initiating friendships is not,” according to researchers. “Additionally, online behaviors that indicate face-to-face social activity (like posting photos) are associated with reduced mortality.”

Although the correlation between online social networking and reduced mortality may be explained at least in part by socioeconomic factors, it does indicate that further research could be helpful to better understand this tool.

Helping older adults get online and join social media — and then encouraging family, friends, loved ones and caregivers to reach out and make a connection — may have a positive effect.

While researchers continue to explore the effects of participating in social media, it is clear that its use among older adults is continuing to grow. Younger generations, including “digital natives” who were raised with ready access to smart devices, will rely even more on online connections later in life. Keeping up with and supporting these populations will remain important to elder care providers and senior living communities.

Relationships created and maintained online may be used to complement face-to-face interaction in the real world. In addition, for those older adults whose family and friends are limited and who reside in different cities and states, social media may provide an excellent opportunity to help reduce loneliness and maintain health and wellness.

Lisa Price, M.D., is chief medical officer at Denver-based InnovAge, a provider of health and wellness services for older adults in California, Colorado and New Mexico. She was a private practice geriatrician for 11 years and then attended on the Acute Care of the Elderly service and taught quality improvement at the University of Colorado. Price is board-certified in internal medicine and geriatrics and has expertise in managed care, electronic health records and quality improvement.

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