July 10, 2013
Why Getting Online Matters for Diverse Older Adults
By: Jason Coates

Who doesn’t have a smart phone these days? Mobile technology is one of the fastest growing of the new technologies out there. And for many young and middle aged adults, it seems like the laptop is the technology of “yesteryear.” Yet many older adults, especially those over 65, may not own or know how to operate a computer. There’s a large divide between who is “plugged” in and who is not.

Across racial and ethnic groups, young people are more likely to use new technologies than older adults.  For example, even though Hispanic households with middle- and high incomes have high rates of internet usages, older Hispanics are far less likely to use the internet.  Overall, just 35% of Hispanics aged 65 and over own a computer, compared to over 70% of Hispanics overall.

We know diverse older adults endure economic insecurity, hunger, health inequities, and isolation.  We also know that any one of these issues can make life difficult in general.  Is the digital divide not something to be as concerned about?  It is.  The internet is a tool that can also offer solutions. The details of issues like economic insecurity and hunger are not frequently discussed and not well known among those that have not experienced it for themselves. However, the internet (specifically social media) is one way for older adults to expose their shared experiences to a larger audience.  It also allows older adults to escape isolation by finding community online and staying connected to friends and family, even if many miles away.  

The internet also allows older adults to inform key policy discussions that affect their lives. For example, for diverse older adults experiencing hunger and struggling to purchase prescription medication have extraordinarily valuable experiences to relate and can inform millions of people, including the policymakers with the power to make systemic change.   Stories from older adults about the importance of nutrition and transportation services lost due to budget cuts and sequestration would show the human cost of these policies.  Rather than inconvenienced airline travelers, the public would identify sequestration with budget cuts for Meals on Wheels and the seniors going hungry as a result.  The use of social media by diverse older adults allows them to not only share their stories, but act as their own advocates.

Advocates for older adults spend a lot of time learning about the experiences of the individuals they serve to better understand their needs and because these stories need to be told.  For example, each year, the Diverse Elders Coalition’s (DEC) member organizations such as the National Hispanic Council on Aging (NHCOA) travels across the country to host community forums of older adults and both the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) and Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE) have story collection efforts.  These efforts are valuable, but they can’t take the place of an older adult speaking for herself and sharing her life as she experiences it.  And though the efforts of NHCOA, SEARAC, and SAGE are well-known and well-regarded among policy makers and aging advocates, they cannot always tap into the personal network of an older adult.  If diverse older adults themselves took to social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and personal blogs, they would bring a personal voice to the issues that affect them and have the power to change the hearts and minds of their own networks.

Internet and social media use by diverse older adults can also make the younger generations more aware of aging issues.  The general public knows very little about Medicare, Social Security, and the programs of the Older Americans Act.  Most know very little about the struggles of older adults.  However, an increased online presence of older adults would make these struggles difficult to ignore, and it could generate more support for federal programs, like Social Security, that help people age with dignity. It can also get a younger generation to think about and better prepare for their own aging.  In addition, diverse seniors have experiences that younger generations can relate to.  Young people today are growing up in the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression.  Older adults that grew up during the Depression can relate to young people today by sharing their experiences online.

Seniors have an audience online, but comparably low internet usage.  Aside from waiting for younger generations to take their social media habits with them into old age, what can be done to bring older adults online?  The Senior Community Services Employment Program (SCSEP) provides job training to older adults.  Sen. Sanders, of Vermont, has expressed interest in getting more seniors online through Older Americans Act programs.

What are some other ways to get older adults to take part in social media?