Helping Seniors to Go Online



By Guest Blogger, Norman Reiss

Using internet provides many benefits

Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project studies how Americans use the internet and how this affects our lives. This spring the project released Older Adults and Technology Use, a report based on research among people 65 and older, which found:

  • Six of 10 seniors are online, less than the general public (87%);
  • Top motivations seniors gave for going online were communicating with family and friends (75%), shopping (58%) and obtaining health information (53%); and
  • Most importantly, once seniors go online they come to view digital technology as an essential resource that becomes an integral part of their lives.

At a forum I attended this spring, Pew presented their findings to a group of New York City seniors, many of whom were not shy about expressing their views.  One marveled how Skype had allowed her to reconnect with family and how Wikipedia offers information on practically any topic (although not all of it accurate).  Another described how she had become tech literate by attending computer classes at the New York Public Library.

A more skeptical senior said “We have to be shown the benefits of how accessing the internet will help us.” Point taken; however, it’s been well documented that internet use can improve cognitive function and decrease isolation among people in their senior years. In addition, it’s worth noting that older adults can gain access to information about vital services, such as Social Security, Medicare, voter registration, New York City’s 311 system and much more over the internet.

Free help and equipment for New York City seniors

While the Pew Project found internet use growing among seniors, their research also showed an income gap – with older users tending to have relatively high incomes. Fortunately, in New York City we have fantastic programs working to change that equation.

  • The Virtual Senior Center provides homebound New Yorkers with special, free, easy-to-use touchscreen devices that allow them to enjoy programming including live classes, world-famous museum-hosted tours, chats with friends, and discussions on topics ranging from health to politics from the comfort of their homes. It also provides a simplified access to Skype, links that serve as a spring board to exploring the internet, email and games.

Like most of us, seniors have concerns about privacy while using the internet. As one person attending the Pew presentation said, “I don’t want to tell everyone what I’m doing from moment to moment.” So it’s important to let seniors know that it’s very possible to enjoy social networking without sharing excessive information about yourself – and talk with them about how to make those determinations. This is especially important because older people are often targeted for scams.

I highly recommend the lovely movie Cyber-Seniors, which documents an inter-generational initiative that helped seniors to become more comfortable with technology. Watching it recently, I found it echoed my own experience that, with a little help and encouragement, older New Yorkers can learn and vastly improve their ability to stay connected with others, to gain access to resources and enjoy the other benefits of the internet.

Norman Reiss volunteers at organizations that help seniors live richer lives, including JASA, Dorot, Selfhelp Community Services (which runs the Virtual Senior Center) and Older Adults Technology Services (which runs Senior Planet). He blogs about the intersection of technology, communications and fundraising for nonprofit organizations at Nonprofit Bridge.

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