Helping Senior Relatives Get the Hang of Facebook

Granddaughter helps grandmother use computer

Regina always looked forward to receiving newsy Christmas letters, and she decorated her fridge with postcards friends and family sent from their vacations. But this year, only a handful of holiday cards arrived, and her vacation postcard display hasn't been updated lately. She sighed to her visiting family, "I didn't get a card from Allison, or Greg, or the twins …" "Oh Grandma," said her 25-year-old granddaughter, "Nobody sends Christmas letters or postcards anymore—they just share all that on Facebook!"

Facebook and other social media sites have brought about a revolution in the way we share information. Rather than bundling news and photos into an annual holiday letter, family and friends post a steady stream of little updates—daily, and in some cases, seemingly hourly!

Even though older adults list staying connected with family as one of their top priorities, they have been slower to adopt this new way of communicating. But that's changing fast, say experts. Penn State University researchers say that in 2013, only 27 percent of people older than 65 used social media—but by April 2016, that number rose to 35 percent and the percentage continues to trend upward, with seniors being the fastest-growing group of social media users.

So are younger people jumping ship from Facebook now that older folks are coming on board? Despite predictions that they would flock to the next new thing, plenty of young adults and even teenagers are still active on Facebook. As of March 2016, Facebook reported more than 1 billion active daily users. Pew Internet Research found that 72 percent of all adults use Facebook, including 82 percent of those ages 18 – 29. And although Pew predicted a few years ago that the youngest users would "diversify their social media portfolio," due in part to an increasing adult presence, few teens have abandoned it altogether: 71 percent still use Facebook, ensuring its place as the top social media platform among kids of that age group.

This means that the 65 percent of older adults who are not yet on Facebook are missing out on an increasingly important way to stay connected with family, friends and the community. Using Facebook can promote healthy aging, say numerous recent research studies. A May 2016 study from UCLA showed that our brains are always at the ready to interact socially, and going on Facebook is a good outlet for that impulse. While online relationships can't take the place of in-person socialization, using social media does help seniors feel less isolated. It provides intellectual stimulation, allows them to connect with the world at large and reduces depression. Seniors are making new friends online, and real-life friendships are enhanced by frequent interactions via social media.

So if your elderly parent or other senior relative is game, it might be time to help them onto Facebook. There can be a learning curve, but if you're willing to serve as a mentor, the rewards can be rich for your loved one. Here are six steps to take:

Introduce them to Facebook and demonstrate the benefits. The Penn State researchers found that seniors aren't motivated to join Facebook merely because someone urges them to. They need to see for themselves what it's all about. Pull up your own page and show them the pages of children and grandchildren. Help them check to see if old friends have Facebook accounts. Go to the pages of public figures and businesses they like. This can be pretty compelling motivation, even for people who are intimidated by technology!

Help them set up their account. If your loved one decides to go for it, it's probably best for you to lend a hand as they get started. While Facebook is pretty user-friendly, it can be confusing for a novice! Remember that this might be your loved one's first real foray into the online world; more seniors today are getting their first email account and even their first computer expressly for going on Facebook. Be patient as your loved one becomes familiar with the news feed, profile, privacy settings, private messages, friend requests and posting photos … and be prepared to explain what a captcha is!

Time for an etiquette lesson. Some seniors are content just to lurk, never posting but just looking at news and photos from family, perhaps with an occasional "like." Others take to this new skill with gusto! To ensure they'll be welcome participants, remind them that the comments function on someone's post is not the place for a private email chat but instead is a group conversation. And remember, commenting that a grandchild's skirt is too short is a great way to get unfriended! If your loved one launches right in with a bunch of political memes, well, that's another conversation!

Having the privacy talk. One amusing but not surprising finding of the Penn State researchers: Prof. Shyam Sundar reports that "older adults tend to use Facebook as a form of social surveillance. This is something that many older adults do. They want to see how their kids are doing and, especially, what their grandkids are doing." This finding might be a good motivator for younger family members to check their privacy settings and consider what they post! But their grandparents, too, will need a tutorial in the privacy settings of Facebook, as well as tips on what not to post. Seniors are as a rule protective of their privacy—but they've not had the benefits of years of online experience to know about forwards, screen captures and hackers.

Help with security. Especially if this is your loved one's first online experience, you'll need to fill them in about selecting a password and keeping it secret, the tactics of hackers, what to do about friend requests from strangers, and so forth. While you're at it, warn them about the "Grandparent Scam" and about posts that are really just advertisements. Remind them that if they don't know a person in real life, they should be cautious—a person might not be who they seem.

Encourage family to friend your loved one. While you're helping them set up their account, they can send out friend requests. Get the word out to other family members and friends that your loved one is now a Facebooker and could use some "likes" of encouragement. Some families also form closed or secret groups where they can comment and post in private—but, of course, remember that nothing that's online is 100 percent secure.

When Caregiver Support = Tech Support

Senior woman with computer

If you feel a little overwhelmed by helping elderly loved ones figure out the challenges of social media and the internet, you're not alone! "Technological caregiving is a new form of work," reports Northwestern University's Anne Marie Piper. At the Association for Computing Machinery's Computer-Human Interaction meeting of May 2016, Piper said, "We hear about the physical, financial and social stress of caregiving, but no one ever talks about the burden caregivers feel to keep people active online, which we feel is a fundamental part of participating in society."

Yes, it can be daunting to help your loved one use social media. If you can, spread the work around. Grandchildren—who are of a generation that seemed to be born with a mouse in their hand—might be willing to help out. In many families, this relationship has proven to be quite rewarding, with both seniors and younger family members feeling a sense of accomplishment and pride.

If you're a long-distance caregiver and your loved one agrees, you might access their computer remotely. And reassure your loved one that no question is "silly"—if they have questions or concerns, you'll be happy to help.

Some senior centers offer computer courses, including classes on social media. Or, from the comfort of your loved one's own home, you can access a free online social media course from AARP's TEK Academy (the "TEK" stands for Technology Education and Knowledge). The course walks users through setting up a Facebook account, building their profile, locking in privacy settings and understanding all those confusing little details. The website also includes other easy-to-understand tutorials on topics such as online safety and using mobile devices.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.