“It is a strange world.”
Kathryn Robinson wrote that in an email just six years after she first began using the Internet. She was 105.
In her lifetime, Robinson survived two world wars and the Great Depression. She witnessed women attain the right to vote, the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing and 9/11.
Before her death at the age of 108 two years ago, Robinson also mastered the Internet. In the Pennsylvania senior community where she lived, she was known for extolling the value of the web and Generations on Line, the nonprofit that made it accessible to her. Tobey Dichter, founder of Generations on Line, remembers Robinson fondly not only as one of the company’s eldest clients, but as a perfect example of what some online companies are trying to offer: A digital lifeline for those 65 and older.
“If you’re going to spend your life doing something, helping out this group is a good day’s work,” Dichter said. “It’s exciting to watch somebody who has the ability learn about the Internet take it in and see the magic there.”
Generations on Line was founded in 1999 with a mission of expanding digital literacy to senior citizens and is now offered in more than 1,800 locations in the U.S. and Canada. The program is basically the Internet 101: Clear, simple instructions and on-site help for a generation that didn’t grow up with computers.
It was a service that was especially needed in the late 90s, when the Internet was first taking off. In 2001, a Pew Reasearch study found that 15 percent of seniors went online, making up 4 percent of the online population. That number has skyrocketed since, with 59 percent of all Americans 65 and older saying they go online at least "occasionally" as of April 2012.
Social media has led the charge for many elders logging on. Pew found in 2010 that seniors age 74 and older were the fastest-growing demographic on social media, with social networking among senior Internet users quadrupling from 4 to 16 percent between April 2009 and May 2010.
“They realized that they were missing out,” Dichter said. “Once they have the experience of trying it, rather than just having someone show them, it’s joyful and they are terrific at it.”
Joining the conversation
The rising number of senior Internet users has deepened the opportunity of connecting elders and the digital world. Where the goal was once to get seniors online, that vision has shifted to enriching the online experience with specific connection points and new relationships.
Andrew Dowling is the founder of two websites that try to do just that — Stitch and Tapestry. Both sites are designed to fill a need within the senior community, Dowling said. First launched in 2010, Tapestry offers seniors a social network that funnels family and friend updates from several networks like Facebook or Google+ into one, easy-to-use site. Stitch, launched this year, has been billed as more of a matchmaking site for older adults, but its focus is companionship, Dowling says.
“It speaks to a need,” Dowling said. “The sort of companionship that someone in their seventies is looking is very different kind of relationship a 28-year-old woman is looking for.”
Both the need for companionship and its benefits are very real.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that as of 2009, depression affects some 6.5 million of America’s 35 million senior citizens.
A 2014 University of Chicago study found that feeling lonely or isolated can increase an older person’s chance of premature death by 14 percent. The study’s author, John Cacioppo, said that makes health impacts from loneliness — including sleep disruptions, depression, elevated blood pressure and increased production of stress hormones — twice as likely to kill an older person as obesity.
“Seniors (in Australia) who say they are lonely are 64 percent more likely to develop some kind of cognitive impairment like dementia,” Dowling said. “As you get older and your social circle inevitably shrinks, it’s a real epidemic.”
But it isn’t just being physically apart or alone that isolates seniors, Dichter said. Not understanding the Internet, Dichter says, can fuel what author William H. Thomas calls the three “plagues” of the elderly: Boredom, helplessness and loneliness.
“You can feel very alone just sitting at a dinner table if you feel shut out of the conversation,” Dichter said. “There’s a sense of isolation because others are looking at their phones, discussing what’s on YouTube and speaking in a vocabulary that is completely foreign to them. It’s very intimidating to master the vocabulary the rest of us have been accumulating for last 30 years.”
Not understanding the culture leads to something Dichter says most seniors despise: A sense of dependency on others with the knowledge.
“You start to feel more dependent and that’s one of the worst curses to an older person. That generation particularly wants to be of service,” Dichter said. “It’s not like a 3-year-old who is used to being dependent. It’s someone who’s 75 years old who raised a family and used to run his own business. And he’s so embarrassed.”
Knowing the language and joining the online community helps combat these problems. A Michigan State University study published earlier this year found that when seniors use social media to connect with friends and loved ones, their risk of depression decreased by more than 30 percent.
The most important thing for seniors and their families to realize is that they can do it, Dichter said.
“What’s blocking many of them is the perception that they’ll never be able to do it. But they just have to be given the information,” Dichter said. “These people have not lived 75 or more years by being dopes.”
Once seniors do embrace the Internet, a whole new life could be waiting, Dowling says. While Tapestry and Stitch both have just a few thousand members, Dowling says he doesn’t measure success in sign-ons.
“The good that technology can do is obvious to most of us,” Dowling said. “There’s huge reward in just seeing it succeed and knowing how many lives you’ve touched from an idea.”