Loneliness can be considered a disease, a malaise of the spirit (when it doesn’t also affect the mind and body). Loneliness is, in fact, one of the major causes of depression. Those most affected by loneliness are the elderly: suffering from poor health and low energy levels, they are often relegated to the margins of a fast paced society that forgets how much they still have to offer.
But there are also those older spirits who don’t want to live on the sidelines, and that, even if some of their youthful vigour and enthusiasm has faded, are keen to keep up with the times.This is demonstrated, for example, by the fact that many of them have enthusiastically taken to the Internet, which is certainly not part of their cultural background.
Connection is possible at all ages
While it is true that there is a gap between the young and the elderly when it comes to use of the Internet, the gap is decreasing year by year.
In Italy, for example, the twelfth Censis-Ucsi Report on Communication – published in March 2015 – revealed that there has been a steady increase in the use of Internet and social media within the age range of 55 to 74 years. Today in Italy there are 35 million users browsing the Internet, 50 percent of Italians are registered on Facebook, and 11 percent of them are in the older age group.
The Italian Association of Psychogeriatry (AIP) estimates that about one and a half million elders use Facebook to keep in touch with relatives and friends, and that, thanks to the network's stimuli, they have fewer memory disorders and “younger” brains .
This boom in older people’s use of the internet is backed by data from the USA, where this group’s presence on the web is even more notable: 43 percent of over-65s now use social networks, whereas in 2006, only 1 percent did so.
Why are the elderly using social media?
A study conducted by two Penn State University researchers revealed the main reasons why in America older people have adapted to social media en-masse:
- the need to maintain pre-existing social relationships;
- the desire to “build” new relationships (albeit virtual);
- the curiosity and the desire to “follow” the paths of growth of children and grandchildren.
All these contribute to their peace of mind.
More evidence about how social media benefits elderly persons’ health, comes from a study by Shelia Cotten of Michigan State University and published on the Journal of Gerontology. In this study the correlation between Internet use for socializing and a lower chance of suffering from depression is discussed. It shows that elderly people using social media services have 30 percent less chance of becoming depressed than those who do not use them.
Certainly there are risks (seniors more easily become prey to phishing or other scams), but over all the data is positive: they confirm that, even for older people, life is more beautiful if shared and that, used in the right way, the internet can help people live together and feel far less alone.
Communicating: an innate human need
This should not be surprising for communicating and having friends is an innate human need. Humans are social beings, and, as Aristotle put it, “friends are necessary in prosperity as in need, in youth as in old age, in private life as in public life. Friends are the largest of the external assets; no one would choose to live without friends, even though he owned all the other assets.”
The elderly, like the young and very young therefore need to keep in touch with other people, to share their own lives, their interests, their fears.
And why not do it through the internet?
Sociologist Marshall McLuhan argues that every means of communication is an extension of our physical and nervous system and amplifies our sensory and cognitive potential and helps us to develop our sociality.
And in the last few decades the instrument that more than any other could be consider “an extension of us” – because it allows us to communicate and remain connected with others – is undoubtedly the Internet.
It seems that many older people have understood it too…
Cecilia Galatolo writes for Family and Media, where this article was first published.