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Ilaina Edison

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Elder Care: The (Virtual) Word Is Your Oyster

Posted: 06/26/2012 11:22 am

Juliana was excited. "I'm going to a wedding!" she exclaimed. Never mind that she hadn't left the house in months, that she suffered from congenital heart failure, and that she had no family members to accompany her on a trip.

The wedding, of social worker Sandra Nohavicka -- who works with many homebound patients in New York -- was broadcast on YouTube. Her online guests included many of her patients, like Juliana and like Mary, who has cerebral palsy, lives on her own, and has limited mobility. "Your dress was beautiful," Mary gushes to Sandra.

This is a dramatic example of the many daily ways those with limited mobility can use the computer -- especially for social networking -- to combat the isolation, loneliness, depression and anxiety that can come with aging alone at home, and that can be compounded by physical or behavioral illness.

While social networking use has proliferated among all age groups, America's seniors, those age 65 and older, are the fastest-growing group to embrace it. The Pew Research Center found that social networking among internet users ages 65 and older doubled -- from 13 percent to 26 percent -- between April 2009 and May 2010. (And social media use has skyrocketed in the two years since this report came out.)

"It helps people build support systems, make friends, reacquaint themselves with old friends, connect with family, and connect over shared interests, whether that's religion, politics, cooking, health, or anything else," says Sandra, who works for the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. "It's an inexpensive way to allow people to stay connected, especially for those for whom mobility, transportation and companionship are hard to coordinate."

She turns to her patient. "Right, Mary?"

Mary, who is an avid Facebook user and posts daily positive thoughts, could not agree more. "I have family and friends scattered all over the place," she says. "Before, my community was limited to who I could reach on the telephone. My computer's been a multi-blessing. It's really changed my world." A niece whom she hadn't seen in years recently posted wedding pictures on Facebook. "I got to see what she grew up to be," says Mary. "I sound like an advertisement for the internet!"

Computer as Connection
For the young and able-bodied, online networking is an invaluable tool of commerce, social life and entertainment. For those whose social circles have diminished because of age, illness or limited mobility, social networking can be a bridge out of isolation and depression.

Peter, a former longtime mayor of a Westchester community, suffered from severe depression following cardiac surgery. A sociable figure who cherished his weekly business breakfasts but who was now essentially homebound, Peter was a perfect candidate for social media. Once Sandra helped him start a Facebook page, Peter -- who had 50 friends in the course of one hour -- virtually recreated his popular about-town persona online, connecting with friends and family through social media rather than over breakfast. The change, Sandra says, was dramatic. "He didn't just seem a bit happier," she says, "When I first saw him, he rated as severely depressed on the clinical scale. Three or four weeks after setting up the page, his symptoms went from severe to mild."

For many, aging brings a natural thinning of one's social community, as friends, too, get older and themselves are less mobile and suffer illnesses. Jessica, who is in her 70s, uses her computer to expand her social circles, to chat, share ideas, time and expertise, and join with others to go to theater and political events. Womanshare, an online community of women connecting and swapping services, is her locus. "I see many more plays and go to more political events than ever before," she says, explaining that her chat groups expand her social circle and increase her social options. "If someone's a playwright or theater person, they're always offering to pick you up an extra ticket. Before Google groups, the word didn't go out to everybody. Now it does."

While Jessica is active and mobile, the group was a great boon when she was not. "I broke my leg last year, and this group was amazing," she recalls. "I put out one message, and everyone came visiting. It was great to know that if I run into trouble, there are all these people available to me."

Where to Begin
The beauty of the internet for all of us -- regardless of age, mobility or health -- is that we can use it to create a community for how we live now. I have written before about Evelyn, an avid traveler before age limited her ability to fly to another country at a moment's notice, who uses the computer to navigate life as a nonagenarian. "Just because I'm 90 doesn't mean I'm not still interested in clothes, in fashion or in cooking," she says, explaining what she investigates and plans to write about once she starts her blog. "I like everything I liked before, but of course, some things have changed. I'm now only interested in clothes with long sleeves because of wrinkled arms. I'm cooking with less salt because I know what it does to your body."

If you are limited in mobility or a caregiver for someone who is homebound and isolated, get plugged in. Set up a Facebook page, visit special-interest-group sites, get to know the senior blogosphere. (As a cautionary note, the Securities and Exchange Commission recently posted very important tips for seniors to avoid investor scams on social media.)

Here are a few suggestions on places to start:

  • The brainchild of elderblogger guru Ronni Bennet, Time Goes By is robust clearinghouse for all things related to aging and has an invaluable list of hundreds of elder blogs.
  • The Ageless Project also features a list of bloggers in their 70s and 80s, including one of the oldest, Millie Garfield, 86, whose site My Mom's Blog features Yiddish lessons, videos on the frustration of modern-day packaging, and more.
  • Google your favorite hobby, and see what comes up. Like to knit? Join the community at Ravelry.com. Retired academic? Check out academic research at Academia.edu (or the website of your university, which probably has a robust online community).
  • Use the virtual world to make real-world connections. For David, a musician whose depression had isolated him from his lifelong passion, a VNSNY behavioral health nurse connected him to Concerts in Motion, which brings performances to those who are homebound or hospitalized. Another site, Dorot, offers a combination of online, telephonic and in-person connections.

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