You'd think by now that some type of instant messaging would have 100% adoption. Recently the Atlantic published a long article on the growing adoption of social media by the oldest adults, noting an upcoming study about Internet use from the University of Alabama which found a "30 percent decrease in depressive symptoms among older adults who used it regularly." The Atlantic's article was particularly focused on the use of social media (like Facebook) for older adults who are unable to get out and about regularly. The article was particularly excited about the rapid growth in online use among the 74-plus population up to 30% as detailed in Pew Research's Generations 2010. Unfortunately, in more recent Pew Research studies (August 2011) -- only 42% of the 65+ population, according to Pew, go online at all. And of those who do, only 33% are social networking users.
Which brings me to today - September 11, 2011. The news media and newspapers are stuffed with reminiscences about September 11 -- let me offer my own: where I worked that day near Boston, the phones and cell phones were completely unusable, clogged with frantic efforts to contact family members across the city and country. What worked as a point of contact? My family used AOL Instant Messenger (which once had 52% market share in 2006 and has lost nearly all of it today) to text that we were safe and to maintain contact. What turned out to be a surprise was well how it worked and that we were not the only ones to do so. Today, instant messaging and online chatting are feasible through every device, whether through point-to-point links through some chat tool or through a broadcast medium, Tweet'ed or posted online. Regularly used to communicate status in the face of unexpected events, in fact Twitter feeds recently exploded with status about the earthquake in the Eastern states, warning individuals miles away before they even felt a tremor.
So what's the excuse if families don't extend connectedness to Grandma and Grandpa? Pew Research typically does not provide the commentary and rationales of non-users of technology. However, in its Home Broadband study, Internet non-users did acknowledge that going online would require some help. But let's put the blame where it belongs, on the shoulders of the adult children of the older adult 65+ who falls into the category of the 42% without a cell phone, the 58% who don't go online, or of the online users, the 66% who don't use social networking. The excuses I hear endlessly from well-meaning and well-educated family members include: 'My grandmother (or grandfather) won't go near a computer, can't stand to have a cell phone, thinks an Internet connection is a waste of time and money, refuses to turn on a device, doesn't want a camera near her and can't be convinced. We've tried, and so we give up.' Do you really believe that this is the point at which family members should give up and walk away, especially for those who can afford to buy the technology and/or services on a family member's behalf?
Ten years after September 11 -- lack of real-time communication smacks of neglect. Let's be clear. The disaster plan that has so preoccupied business still has not fully penetrated all age ranges of extended and distributed families, despite the dropping cost of easy-to-use tech that can be given as birthday gifts, just as parents give cell phones to their 11-year-old children. Does it really matter what device or method is used today to communicate status and/or reach help? Not as long as there is a tested and viable mechanism (or multiple) that everyone agrees to and knows how to use, and that there is a backup alternative in the event that one channel becomes completely clogged in an emergency. Fixing the connection gaps in the family chain would seem to be the least we can resolve to do on a day like September 11.