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Using Technology to Make Meaningful Connections

A senior African American woman checks her phone on the beach.

There’s no shortage of opinions these days about social networks and the decline of in-person social connections. Headlines like “Is Technology Making People Less Sociable?” and “Is the Internet Bad for Society and Relationships?” point to the internet, and technology in general, as a contributing cause of this downturn.

But the internet can also be a positive force, especially for older adults. The Brain and Social Connectedness: GCBH Recommendations on Social Engagement and Brain Health, a report released this month by the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), notes, “Typically, the digital engagement complements rather than replaces in-person communication.” GCBH is an independent collaborative of scientists, health professionals, scholars, and policy experts convened by AARP with support from Age UK.

According to the report, online communication platforms like email, instant messaging, social networking sites (e.g., Facebook) and video chat (e.g., Skype, FaceTime) may help seniors not only maintain relationships with their family and friends but also expand their social world.

Advancements in digital technology, along with increasing internet access and the development and use of social media across the world, present new opportunities for older adults to engage socially.

For isolated older adults, technology can be a boon — improving social participation, increasing opportunities for employment and volunteerism, and providing better access to information and resources. Forty-seven percent of internet users age 50–64 and 26 percent age 65 and over now use social networking sites, according to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Beyond social networking, new technologies can revolutionize aging in place and help reduce the risks of social disconnection. An example is the virtual caregiving assistant Care Angel, winner of AARP Foundation’s Aging in Place $50K Challenge. Care Angel uses artificial intelligence (AI) and voice recognition to provide daily check-in “Care Calls” that monitor seniors’ health and daily living needs and offer guidance. When indicated, Care Angel sends alerts to family members or caregivers and generates reports on the data it collects that can be shared with health care providers.

Whatever its perceived shortcomings, technology offers endless possibilities for facilitating social connection — not as a replacement for human contact, but as a vehicle for developing and reinforcing relationships.

And it’s never too late to start.

To learn how to use social media to connect with your family and friends, visit AARP TEK. Consider trying Skype, Google Hangouts or, if you have an iPhone or iPad, FaceTime. Even if you can’t be in the same room, these video chat services can help to lessen the distance between loved ones.

Are you interested in volunteering? Check out Connect2Affect’s Get Connected page for volunteer opportunities in your community. And if you’re looking to meet older adults in your area who share your interests, compiles a phenomenal range of local activities — everything from knitting groups to walking clubs to game nights.

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