Whether it’s interacting on Facebook, sending an email to a friend, chatting to family via FaceTime or even playing World of Warcraft, digital communication is helping reduce loneliness and isolation among old people, a report has found.
Belinda Fuss, a PhD student the University of Adelaide, first became interested in the field when her 90-year-old grandmother elected to remain in rural SA after drought forced her family to move to the city.
“I became interested in ways we could help her connect with us and friends,” Ms Fuss told Community Care Review.
To investigate, Ms Fuss conducted a review of existing research into computer mediated social support, or communication via computer involving a person at either end of the computer.
Her review, pulished in the current Australasian Journal on Ageing involved, data from 17 studies from Australia, China, Canada, US and Netherlands and 17,640 community dwelling older adults.
If found that frequent computer mediated communication was associated with higher levels of social support and connectedness, and could even enhance social wellbeing and reduce loneliness for some older people.
In particular, forms of digital communication including email, social media and online games could bolster relationships with extended family and friends, particularly for people with geographical or functional difficulties.
“In general it looks like people who have access to digital communication and have someone who’s on both sides of the computer, and have the direct capability to do it, are better off and more socially connected than people who don’t have that resource,” she said.
“And if they have that resource, and do it with a higher frequency, those relationships seem to be stronger.”
Ms Fuss says it is still unclear whether older people who benefit from computer mediated communication do so because they have a wider network of friends to begin with, with some studies suggesting that people use digital communication to maintain existing relationships rather than make new friends.
Email a popular form of communication
The most popular form of computer mediated communication is email, she says.
“It’s a lot like letter writing,” Ms Fuss says. “They can take their time in explaining what they want to say and it can be day night, whenever they want to write it, they can send it when they want to, as opposed to something like SMS where the communication is much more immediate.
“They also really like FaceTime, especially to talk to family overseas.”
Other popular forms are online games, like Words with Friends, and Facebook. Older people are also using Snapchat, Instagram and even massive online multi-player games.
“They’re playing World of Warcraft,” says Ms Fuss, who likens the role-playing platform to social games like Bingo, except with people from all over the world.
Barriers to wider take-up of computer mediated communication exist for older people, however, including structural issues like internet access and attitudinal barriers such as the belief that ‘never grew up with it’ or ‘I’m not tech savvy’.
Ms Fuss says this highlights the need to make sure connected devices are available and that older people are given the confidence and technical support to help them get the most out of it.