By Lisa Jevens
published in Chicago Tribune Prime Time senior living
Imagine if your friends and family gradually stopped calling, writing, sharing photos and interesting articles they've read, and inviting you to events — but continued to do so with everyone else they knew. You would feel pretty disconnected. Unfortunately, that is exactly what has happened to many older adults who have not yet discovered social media.
With one out of every seven people on the planet now on Facebook, and 74 percent of online adults in America using social media to communicate, it's easy to feel left out if you're not among them.
Fortunately, you don't have to depend on a grandchild to bring you up to speed on social media. There are many resources — and even a snappy new tablet — designed to connect you to the world you've been missing.
Once you get there, you'll find you're in good company. Baby boomers have long been the fastest growing generation on Facebook. According to a much-quoted 2013 study from the Pew Research Center, six in 10 seniors 65 and older now go online, and nearly half of them are using social networking sites.
Lenore Greenstein, 75, a resident of Sedgebrook of Lincolnshire, got a Facebook account five years ago. She uses it to stay in touch daily with three generations of her family all over the world.
"I'm in Arizona with my daughter for approximately nine weeks each summer and in Florida with my husband from December to April," she says. "Facebook makes it really easy to stay in touch with everyone."
Why go social?
Ask any senior why they got into social media and they'll likely tell you it was for the same reasons those other 7 billion people did: to see what friends and family are doing, and to understand what they're thinking, fretting, dreaming and reading about. Some enjoy hunting down old classmates or long-lost relations, and perhaps adding their own voices to the conversation.
Chuck West, 77, of Chicago started in 2009 on Facebook — half its lifetime ago. The former ad man had been using computers since 1980, and was "curious to see what it was all about." Later he got a LinkedIn account to see what former colleagues were doing.
"I thought it might enable me to look up people I have known in various industries and check and see what they are up to," he says. "It has become a kind of bulletin board, like Facebook, but with a business slant."
West finds Facebook helpful for checking up on family, even though he rarely posts. "If I'm interested in finding out what a niece is up to, I'll look her up and she will have posted 800 pictures," he jokes.
Though it seems counterintuitive, social media doesn't make people more isolated. It makes them more social, the Pew study found.
Some 81 percent of older adults who use social networking sites say they socialize with others on a daily or near-daily basis. Among those who are not online at all, only 63 percent claim to do so.
Jason Hedman, Regional Director of IT at Senior Care Development (which owns The Clare, Monarch Landing and Sedgebrook senior communities in the Chicago area), would agree. He and his staff of technicians provide in-home technology service to residents. He estimates about 60-70 percent have a computer, and 30-40 percent use social media.
He and his staff have done pretty much everything, from installing adaptive technology so residents can see, hear and use their computers better, to setting up a live video connection to a granddaughter's wedding.
He has helped a 93-year old man who had never touched a computer get online and view his old house on Google Street View.
"It helps them maintain connections and a sense of usefulness, being part of the larger world," Hedman says. "They say social media is making the world a less warm place, but it's really doing the opposite."
Generose Szostak, a resident of Sedgebrook of Lincolnshire who is 80+, says it seems like Facebook has been part of her life forever. She has more than 100 friends, and regularly posts pictures of family trips that she has captured on her iPad.
"I'm pretty high tech," she says.
She follows her 13 grandchildren on social media. "I've also reconnected with friends through Facebook," she says. "Even with classmates from grade school. Facebook is really fun for me. Whenever I'm on the computer, I'm checking Facebook."
Tablet for technophobes
Social media and tablets have grown up together. Lightweight, portable and easy to tap, tablets are a simple gateway to social media for many. They make it easy to sit in a comfortable chair while checking Facebook, having a video chat via Skype, searching for a recipe on Pinterest, reading the news, checking email or playing games.
The Pew study showed that 27 percent of seniors 65 and older own a tablet, an e-book reader or both. Many more younger baby boomers do, as well, but about 1/3 of American adults are still "digitally challenged" with either no Internet connection or a desktop computer they don't use much, the AARP says.
This October AARP is aiming to bridge the gap by launching a new tablet called the RealPad, designed specifically with senior technophobes in mind.
"One of our social mission initiatives is to make sure that people 50 and over are digitally connected, because we live in a digital world," says AARP executive vice president Stephen Cone.
The RealPad was created by Intel to be easy to use and to read. It has free 24/7 customer service with live U.S.-based operators, and 10 built-in video tutorials to learn how to access the digital world. It also troubleshoots itself with a touch of the RealQuick Fix tool. It's available at Walmart stores and online for $189.
Easy Ways To Learn Social Media
There are many ways to learn to use social media if you don't have a grandchild handy.
If you live in a senior community, there may be a tech guru who can help you one-on-one.
Computer classes and clubs at senior communities have proven popular ways to learn, and are popping up at more and more communities he says. If your community does not have one, ask the activities director.
Apple stores offer free hour-long seminars on how to use Apple devices, software and apps. They include topics such as how to configure your device to accommodate hearing loss, low vision, or motor skill issues. Call your local Apple store for details.
GCFLearnFree.org offers 125 online tutorial subjects, including more than 1,100 lessons and videos, completely free. It specializes in introducing beginners to everything computer-related, such as, tablets, email, software, apps, and social media.
Check your local library and senior center for classes and presentations on learning social media.