From the pages of South Jersey Magazine…
The generation of manual typewriters, rotary phones and vinyl 45s learns to embrace new technology. Far from being Luddites for life, plenty of America’s senior citizens are enthusiastically embracing new technology, cruising along in the fast lane of the information superhighway—with or without the blinker on. To track this growing trend, we checked in with some tech-savvy South Jersey seniors who make cyberspace a daily destination, surfing the Web, updating their own Facebook pages, playing video games, writing blogs and sending text messages with the dexterity of kids born with an iPhone in their hands.
Westmont resident Lou Forgione is a 60-something recent retiree who knows his way around the Internet. He has first-hand experience with the benefits of social networking, frequently logging into his profile on the popular professional nexus LinkedIn to stay in touch with his former business associates in the printing industry. “LinkedIn is perfect for me,” Forgione explains. “It’s a very good source for networking, and, most importantly, it is not age-specific. I think Facebook gets too personal.”
Plenty of his peers would disagree with that last assessment. According to the most recent Nielsen research, the cybermagnet that is Facebook ranked as the third most visited online destination for Internet users over the age of 65 in November 2009, with 7.9 million seniors visiting that month. (Google Search, with 10.3 million visitors, and Windows Media Player, with 8.2 million, were the top two senior-surfed sites.) That represents a big jump for Facebook with the older set; just a year ago it ranked No. 45 among sites visited by senior citizens. It appears that the older generation is catching on to the fact that Facebook allows them to keep up with their children, grandkids, friends and relations online, no matter where in the world they are living. Beverly Klein, a 73-year-old Cherry Hill resident, uses her Facebook page to stay in touch and share photos with her brother, Craig, who lives in Virginia. But Klein’s Web use doesn’t end there. With two computers powered up—an Apple desktop and a laptop PC—she surfs the Net for just about everything, from finding restaurants and tracking her medical records to paying bills and taxes.
She enjoys playing games online and prefers e-mail to phone conversations.“There is almost nothing in my life that I don’t use the computer for these days,” Klein explains. Given this, she has definite views about online social networking. For example, Klein finds the continual short updates posted on Twitter annoying. “Why would anyone want to know if I’m crossing the street?” she quips.
“I think learning basic computer skills and using Web sites like Facebook are wonderful for seniors,” Klein continues. “I feel sorry for those people who are afraid of computers, because it really brings the world into your home.” And though her computer savviness has enhanced her life, Facebook and the other sites she frequents have not usurped the real relationships Klein has cultivated over the years. “I have a life,” she insists. “I have the friends I need, the life I want—and I’m happy.”
Playing GamesComputer use is by nature a stationary activity. For seniors looking to get active when they log off, ground-breaking TV-based gaming systems like the Nintendo Wii—whose remote-controlled, motion-activated software forces players to move, jump and swing their arms—offer an enjoyable, low-impact workout advocated by many healthcare professionals for their calorie-burning and motivational advantages.According to Tanya McKeown, Kennedy Health System’s community program health manager and Eldermed coordinator, the Wii can help seniors stay young in spirit. “Sedentary seniors can become lively once again,” she says. “The physical movement and mental stimulation help keep them active. In addition, there is an increase in oxygen and heart rate, which ultimately translates into calories burned.” Beyond the physical benefits, McKeown says, “Playing the Wii also allows seniors to get involved socially, considering a friendly game of Wii bowling or tennis can increase a spark in conversation and even a little competitiveness. And all this occurs while having fun.”
Ruth Giebel, 77, of Stratford, participates in several of Kennedy’s senior programs, but she gets the most out of her weekly Wii bowling matches at the Gloucester Township Library. “I really have become addicted to it,” she says. “You are on your feet, using your arms, and jumping up and down yelling. For some of us, it’s the most exercise we get.
“I feel more lively” after playing a game, she says. Aside from the physical activity, Giebel also sees value in the social aspect of playing Wii with her peers, citing the difficulty of making friends later in life. “It’s great to get out and socialize and be with other people. It helps your mind keep going and keep from being depressed, too. It’s a great mental boost. It makes you feel like you are somebody, you are important somehow—and that’s a wonderful feeling.”
Other area organizations are encouraging seniors to use technology to get active. The Samost Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Southern New Jersey (JFCS), a nonprofit social-services agency for people of all religions, received a donation from the Samost family in 2008 that provided 185 Wii systems to be distributed to senior communities throughout Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties. To further encourage participation, the JFCS launched an intergenerational program that involves teen volunteers helping seniors learn the games.
“Our senior gamers love the experience, and so do their younger partners,” says Sherry Wolkoff, communications coordinator at the JFCS. “The seniors have even begun to set up matches among themselves.”The Learning CurveThe fact that the JFCS asked teens to come in to teach its seniors how to use the Wii points to the fact that while the younger set is weaned on pixels and bytes and joysticks, the older generation can lag behind the times, technologically. But plenty of area institutions are looking to even the tech-savviness playing field.
“Technology can be intimidating, especially for seniors,” says Katie Hardesty, director of public relations and special events at the Cherry Hill Public Library, which offers a broad range of free monthly computer classes that are a big hit with seniors. “The library is a safe and comfortable place for them to learn a new skill.” Last year, to keep up with emerging Internet trends, the library introduced a class focused on social networking called “Facebook and More” that, says Hardesty, proved “wildly popular” with older adults. The lessons learned seem to be sticking; on the library’s own recently launched Facebook page, more than 14 percent of its 200-plus friends are over 55 years old.
Similarly, the Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill—which has its own highly trafficked Web site and a buzzing Facebook page with more than 650 enthusiastic fans—is looking to bring seniors into the new-tech fold by offering Wii game play along with beginner computer and Internet classes for that age group. Plans to launch a Facebook seminar are in the works for 2010.
“We recently put our course guide for our ‘Life Long Learning’ continuing education program on our Web site and have seen a tremendous response from our 60-plus population,” says Debbie Orel, the JCC’s director of membership and marketing. “We have seen a tremendous change in the way this age group uses the Internet in the last five years.”
Brain Gains? Technology and gaming manufacturers, sensing a new market for their products, have noticed the increase in senior interest. Many have therefore issued claims that their games and software are good for memory retention and help to ward off conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Though there are plenty of studies currently under way looking to corroborate the accuracy of these claims, “The research isn’t there yet,” says Dr. Robert A. Ruchinskas, Phys.D., a neuropsychologist at the New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging, located within the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey’s School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford. “We can’t say that [technology prevents memory loss]; we’ll have to see over time.”
Despite the fact that science can’t yet endorse computer-based activities as a proven way to keep the memory sharp, Ruchinskas sees social networking and game playing as a positive for seniors who feel comfortable plugging in. “In general, we recommend using the brain as much as possible, and we recommend social involvement to stave off isolation and depression,” he explains. “Facebook [and other such technology] meets some of the needs for being socially active.”
Ruchinskas’ patients run the gamut of technology involvement. “Some do quite well learning the new tech; many prefer old-fashioned datebooks to cell-phone reminders. One patient complains about how we do everything on a computer, while another one shows me his Web page,” he says. “Being involved and active is a good thing for general brain health. I can’t think automatically of a downside to seniors using technology other than [the difficulty of] learning something they’re unfamiliar with—but we all go through that.”
Indeed. And, as Ruth Giebel laughingly puts it, “It’s nice when Granny gets out, gets involved in something—and gets out of the kids’ hair.”
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 6 Issue 11 (February, 2010).