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The Internet and loneliness among older adults

Research about loneliness among older adults matters -- to researchers! RANT ON. This past week produced an oddly-titled article: Researchers confront an epidemic of loneliness – among the elderly, focusing on the connection between loneliness and poor health and cognitive decline. This was not 'The New Old Age' -- quite  the contrary. Read that article -- it described how much more advanced Britain is than the US in "addressing the problem of loneliness as it relates to health." Okay, okay. Why not attempt to address loneliness among seniors? So in Britain, consider this call-in number, The Silver Line, started by a 73-year-old woman, herself admittedly lonely following the death of her husband. 

Imagine those who never speak to anyone at all. The Silver Line enables older adults with no one to speak with or interact with to have a conversation with someone by phone -- sometimes the only conversation these seniors have had for days or even weeks at a time. The 2011 founder of The Silver Line, Esther Rantzen, noted at the time that 40% of Britain's elderly had no access to the Internet – and that 53% of the callers had no one else to speak to other than the helpline. And there are numerous attempts to address the lack of technology use among the aging in the UK. Note this recent Cisco-sponsored report and many other initiatives. including efforts by AgeUK to help close this digital divide. In the meantime, there is The Silver Line.

Maybe mitigating loneliness should get more focus in the US. We know the connections people make online. The Internet is a good start. Consider adoption of Facebook by baby boomers, the specialized online courses offered for free – the skills-related training you can find at senior centers everywhere. Social networking and online courses are ways to mitigate isolation. What’s happening in the US about this topic? In 2012, AARP Foundation focused on older adults, expressed written interest in addressing loneliness and social isolation among the 50+. So what did they do first? With the help of outside consultants, they created and published a Framework for Isolation of Adults Over 50. And that seemed to be that. Today AARP continues to describe their 'target' audience as 50+. This is too bad and sad for the real seniors, aged 75+ who do not have the same life or work profile as those who are pictured with Life Reimagined.

AARP and others are trying to help older adults be more proficient online.  But more tech access could help older adults obtain even some social connections, so another part of AARP launched AARP TEK in 2014. Their excellent goal: train older adults in the use of tablets, phones, and useful software. There may be, but I haven’t seen the percent of those trained that are aged 75+. There are also no published connections between the Foundation work (which may have ended) and the AARP TEK work, which launched an online free academy in 2015 – yeah, I get it, the academy is online. But online, as they know, is not enough.  Adeptness at finding information, using apps like Facebook, adjusting to the mystifying behavior of smartphones, and on and on.  When you read about seniors who haven’t spoken AT ALL in a week, you must wonder, as they have in Britain, how to pick up the pace of Internet adoption. SeniorNet and OATS are just two examples.  Where is the directory of all of these programs in the US? And as for AARP, why not host that directory?  And where are those How-To-Guides? Furthermore -- what company is leading the way in discounting and promoting low-cost tablets for seniors? RANT OFF.


The issue of loneliness flies in the face of aging at home. Those who live in a facility will be surrounded by people and things to do.  Maybe we should be more careful before we swallow the mantra that living at home is the best solution for elders. It may be what elders say, but of course they have never tried the alternative, so why are elders the best judge?

Why can't the industry use a 2-3 week trial period for elders to try it out. Maybe they would be better decision makers if the were knowledgeable about both sides of the decision. 

Wouldn't we all be better decision makers if we sort could things out for a few weeks first. The elderly may be lonely because the love of their life is now gone. Or most of their friends. There is a lot to understand here from their point of view and many want to stay independent, doing what they can for themselves as long as possible, even if they are by themselves. They may not drive anymore but can still care for themselves. I think it is up to us as a society to communicate with them and not be so selfish and come to them. We need to go out of our way to make sure they are not lonely.   

Saw your newsletter about this topic. Thank you for bringing forward a very serious topic that has been in the shadows of senior living for far too long.