A friend of ours shared an interesting story recently about seniors and technology. While waiting in line at her local Starbucks for a morning coffee fix, she watched an elderly gentlemen slowly, almost painfully, make his way to a nearby table. His hand shook slightly as he lowered his coffee, spilling some onto the table. Hanging his cane across the back of an adjacent chair, he carefully settled himself down. He was by himself and seemed lonely, old and sad.
Her assumption isn’t surprising given that loneliness is the disease of aging and the depression it brings with it is so common. In the United States, late-life depression affects approximately six million people over the age of 65, putting them at risk for a host of health problems and increasing the odds they will commit suicide by 7%. Depression, it is estimated, costs the country approximately $100 billion annually.
Interestingly, letting seniors have access to the Internet, and showing them how to use it to connect with others is a simple way to alleviate the problem. While not exactly a fix, it’s a darn good bandage.
In a 2009 report, Internet Use and Depression among the Elderly, a policy paper published by the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies, the authors stated that Internet use leads to a 20% reduction in depression. They argue that giving the elderly access to the Internet has the potential to produce ‘significant societal benefits’.
Whether through email, social media or video conferencing, the Internet gives people the ability to connect with others. That connection is what fights depression. Yet, according to a 2010 report by Pew Research, only 30% of people over 74 are online.
Connections make a tremendous difference, something our friend back at Starbucks discovered. She felt so badly for the elderly gentlemen she had been watching that she felt moved to stop by his table on her way out and give him a couple of minutes of her time to make small talk. She figured she might be the only friendly voice he would hear all day. As she dre3w closer, she noticed his head was bent over an iPhone.
‘Good for you,’ she said, striking a conversation, ‘you’re keeping up with the technology.
‘I’m about to Skype an old friend of mine who lives in Hungary,’ he said, pausing in what he was doing. ‘We meet for coffee every morning and talk over the Internet.’
Suddenly this gentleman didn’t seem so lonely or old or sad anymore.