Funny-sounding words like Google and Twitter were foreign to 82-year-old Peggy Batcheler. The retired nurse had never been on the Internet, didn’t know how to get there and she didn’t have the foggiest notion that “going online” might be a remedy for growing isolation.
For years, she had been able to move along through life without the World Wide Web just fine. That is, until her fashion catalogs and church bulletin went solely online. Then, she was left in the dark.
University of Alabama at Birmingham sociology Professor Shelia Cotten, Ph.D., and a team of graduate students have turned on the light for Batcheler and her 80- and 90-year-old peers. They are introducing them to the Internet and its connections on Facebook, Google and Twitter to study the effect on quality of life.
After a few weeks in class, Batcheler is surfing the web like a teenager, and the results have been stunning. The elderly users are happier, Cotten says, because they’ve reconnected with their lost social circles, feeling good about learning something new and, in some cases, recapturing their old hobbies.
Funded by a five-year grant from the National Institute on Aging, Cotten’s team has been hosting eight-week computer-training courses for residents in independent and assisted-living facilities since 2009 in five locations; they plan to extend into 10 more.
Seniors who move into these homes often become depressed because they lose regular contact with their established social networks, Cotten says. But, communicating via email and social networking sites appears to be a good remedy. In findings to be published in Computers in Human Behavior, Cotten says Internet use reduces depression by 20 to 28 percent among older, retired adults.
Going online allows them to correspond with family and friends more often, see pictures of grandkids and watch videos of family vacations.
“They no longer feel that life is passing them by and that they are left there to die,” Cotten says.
Less than 20 percent of the study participants had used computers beforehand, Cotten says. But after a couple of weeks in class, they surf the Internet just like their grandkids.
On a recent Monday at Fair Haven Retirement Home in Birmingham, smiling white-haired seniors — some wearing oxygen masks, bifocals and hand braces — sat in front of large computer monitors with keyboards that have oversized keys and huge, bright yellow mice they jokingly called “rats.”
“We teach them everything — from turning on the computer to moving a mouse,” Cotten says. “You have to start with the basics and not take for granted that they know anything about computers, although some do have computer experience.”
In the first week of class, the students sit away from the computer, leery to even touch it, she says.
“They think they are going to break the computer.”
Then, after about a week, the seniors become at ease and lean into the computer monitors handling the keyboard and mice with finesse, she says.
They often go to Google Street View to check out their old neighborhood or childhood home, surf over to YouTube and watch clips from old classic movies and spy on Facebook to see what their grandkids are doing.
“Every day is an adventure,” says 80-year-old Helen Frye, who had never been on the Internet before but now emails her grandkids in New York.
Older adults are one of the fastest-growing demographic groups online, research shows, for three reasons: their children and grandchildren are pulling them online to engage; an increase in courses offered for seniors; and the ease of use of technology.
Batcheler and classmates googled a burning question and found the response in .09 seconds, she says.
“Someone wanted to know if, when you get up in the middle of the night, you could heat up your milk in the waxed carton?”
“No,” Batcheler said. “It’s best to put it in a microwave-safe container.”