Seniors today are eager to learn about technology, including various social media platforms. Senior living providers and communication researchers alike are taking notice, and taking steps to empower older adults to become more adept at social media and measure its impact on their overall social experience.
In fact, some researchers hypothesize that social media use and learning new technology can positively affect cognitive function and healthy aging.
A recent study by Illinois State University started to measure just what that impact might look like. For the senior living provider involved in the research, there’s plenty of evidence already that once the initial roadblocks are cleared, learning social media has powerful benefits for assisted living residents.
Assisted living residents at Westminster Village, a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) located in Bloomington, Illinois, took part in a 13-week research program with graduate student research clinicians from Illinois State University to learn how to use the social media platform Twitter.
The program, dubbed Golden Tweets, was held once a week, for an hour-long session at the community with residents and 10 graduate research clinicians. Over the course of the 13 weeks, seniors learned how to create their own accounts, follow trending topics, and engage with friends, family and people all over the world.
Researchers Jennine Harvey-Northrop, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders, and Caleb Carr, Ph.D., associate professor of communication, led the program. They decided to try Twitter, a social media site that limits tweets, or updates about what is going on in a person’s life, to 140 characters. In contrast to Facebook, which has more than 1.6 billion monthly active users across the globe and a presence with older adults, Twitter was likely less to be known to the seniors.
“It’s not a good medium, it’s not a bad medium,” Carr said. “It was the best medium for the present. We were trying to figure out something that older adults aren’t using but people around them are. We crossed out Facebook because it’s something that is hitting the 55+ range. We wanted something that was big enough that we could get them to do a lot with it, but more likely than not they wouldn’t have an account yet.”
And they were right. Twitter was relatively unknown to Westminster Village, according to Susan Andresen, director of resident services and wellness at the community.
“When we had advertised [the Golden Tweets] program, I tried to describe it,” Andresen said. “A couple residents didn’t want to come to that coffee meeting because they thought it was about a yellow bird. And they weren’t interested in birds.”
However, once residents got the gist that the program would pertain to social media, finding interested participants wasn’t a challenge for researchers, who said residents were eager to sign up to learn something new.
“Individuals of all ages are interested in bettering themselves and having better brain and cognitive function,” Harvey-Northrop said. “The idea of learning something new and learning a new social medium online is very exciting.”
However, while there was an initial surge of interest in taking part in the program, only six individuals at Westminster Village followed through on the entire 13-week program.
Some seniors felt the program entailed too much new technology for them or that it was too long or too much of a commitment. Others already had too much on their schedule or couldn’t make the commitment for the pilot study due to health appointments. The drop off in participants is a good lesson for senior living companies looking to start their own social media programs, and provided Harvey and Carr with feedback on the length and style of the programming.
The seniors that did stick with the program started with a wide-ranging background on technology, said Harvey. For those with little experience with technology and the Internet in general, the fear of the unknown was an initial obstacle.
“The biggest concern that most individuals had was simply learning something online,” Harvey said. “Some individuals were very well versed in online social media, such as Facebook. Some had almost never touched a computer. There was a very wide breadth in the difference of ability, and not just abilities, but experience. Everyone was really excited about the program, but that was the biggest challenge—individuals weren’t really sure if they could learn it and how they could use it.”
Social Media in Care Settings
She wasn’t the least bit surprised in the initial interest in the program, Harvey said, as seniors are naturally just as curious and eager to learn as any other age group. As the program progressed, the residents found they were excited by the new methods of communication.
“One of our graduate research clinicians posted a gif, which was so fun to express her emotion about her experience,” Harvey-Northrop said. “The participants got such a hoot out of that. They just loved it. It was the most unexpected, exciting thing. For the rest of the semester, everyone wanted to post a gif with every single post they had.”
Beyond gifs (animated images attached to status updates), residents in the program discovered newfound interests, such as keeping up with sports, celebrities or engaging in global news. Working with research students also provided the opportunity to explore these interests with another generation and connect both in person and online.
“It was really interesting and fun to see the intergenerational piece—that discovery of concepts and ideas together,” Harvey-Northrop said. “Not just older individuals finding something new, but younger individuals too, realizing that we didn’t always have social media and there was another way to discuss things.”
While the long-lasting results of the program are still unknown after only a small pilot test, the trends observed by researchers make learning about social media a worthy investment for senior living providers. Many senior living communities, including Westminster Village, already have some technology programs for seniors to learn how to use personal computers, tablets and smartphones, but an in-depth look at social media use can have its advantages, as well.
“I would hypothesize that using a program like this, learning how to use it and then learning how to apply it, would at least change social interaction, how you perceive yourself interacting online, and cognitive function, because you are socially engaged,” Harvey said. “You’re being cognitively stimulated and you are learning something new. That’s what we, [as researchers], are interested in seeing.”
Westminster, for one, is invested in making sure residents have opportunities to engage with technology, learn about new platforms and have the ability to work with their own devices individually, without fear.
“Every Thursday in the afternoon, we have technology help,” Andresen said of Westminster’s initiatives. “Residents can bring anything they own to us. We can help fix things.”
By the end of the social media program with Illinois State researchers, Andresen said she noticed a difference in skill and confidence levels with some of the residents.
“The residents that finished the program were very happy that they went through it,” she said. “They felt their personal compute skills were way up. All people—whether you’re in your 20s or your 90s, still want to learn and stay a part of the world. They want to stay current. It can be very scary for [the residents], but they are willing to put themselves out there and challenge themselves.”
With another round of Golden Tweets lined up for the upcoming Fall semester, the impact on the community has been bright. She sees the potential for a new wave of learning related to social media to become a part of senior living programming, Andresen said.
“I think this is where technology is headed,” she said. “We have to stay current and encourage residents and give them tech support. Sometimes, when you’re body can’t do everything, your mind still wants to be active and challenged.”