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Let's help seniors engage -- beyond social networking

It's a great move forward for seniors to connect to the Internet and find purpose in their lives, as this Times article describes.  The 14 hours a day spent on Eons and PoliceLink.com -- I guess that's good. I know that I have been pounding on the table about getting all seniors connected to the Internet, and espcially those in assisted living and nursing homes, where the day can so often be reduced to waiting for meals, bingo, and bed.

But connectivity to others through the Internet, while necessary, is not sufficient -- it's just a small step.  In the Times article, Joseph Coughlin's (MIT AgeLab) response, when asked about Mrs. Rice, highlights that insufficiency for me. “The new future of old age is about staying in society, staying in the workplace and staying very connected,” he added. “And technology is going to be a very big part of that, because the new reality is, increasingly, a virtual reality. It provides a way to make new connections, new friends and new senses of purpose.”

So let's go back to Mrs. Rice, who is no longer in the society she may have occupied before her heart attack, who was dying of boredom before she discovered social networking. And let's look at the comment from Dr. Coughlin, perhaps not even said in the context of Mrs. Rice.

Take it as a given that she is housebound after a heart attack -- but is still alert and sharp. Help her into the 'future of old age' he describes. Can she:

  • Learn. We know that learning (as well as communicating with others) helps keep minds active and healthy. Maybe that's learning about the services available in her town, maybe that's learning how to ask for services that haven't been invented in her town yet. Maybe it's learning to contribute her knowledge to an effort that could matter to her 4 children and their children.
  • Work. What skills are needed to enable homebound seniors to continue to earn money? With pensions and savings at risk, how can Mrs. Rice find work to do through her obvious and growing online social networking skills? Can she take calls or answer e-mails for a non-profit? Maybe she isn't interested -- but maybe she doesn't know about the possibilities.
  • Bring the outside physical world in. Are there community centers in her town that offer volunteer visits to homebound seniors? Does she know about them? Can they be centered around a hobby or previous work experience? What about the police in her town, given her history as a dispatcher? Can they arrange visits she would learn about through her regular searching of local services? Do they know her?
  • Participate in telemedicine monitoring of her heart. So here is a home bound senior with a serious heart condition. Maybe she could be monitored through a local community health center like this one in Roanoke Chowan Community Health Center in Ahoskie, NC, led by telehealth visionary Bonnie Britton. Nurses install a telemonitoring device from companies like IdealLife or Philips to stay in touch with a person like Mrs. Rice, monitoring her vital signs, asking her questions on a daily basis, calling if her vital signs fall outside of acceptable parameters -- making a patient like Mrs. Rice feel like someone cares about how she is doing?

Finally, check this out -- Facebook has detected that those over age 55 are returning less often.

So that's a good start. What else should help push the constraints and limits of a life like that of Mrs. Rice?