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A less lonely elderly



How will the internet dramatically change our lives as we march towards old age?

It’s been just over a year since I lost my grandmother. She was virtually the only elderly person I’ve ever spent a significant amount of time with. One of the lasting memories I have from the final few months of her life was visiting her at a nursing home and observing her fellow tenants.

Some were watching TV, others playing cards, and some simply sat in chairs staring. I honestly don’t think many of them were sad or even bored, but I do believe that the majority of them were lonely.

Although I can’t speak from personal experience, I imagine that there’s a disconnection that happens when you get older. Your friends start thinning out, it becomes more difficult for you to go anywhere to find new social contacts, and sadly, family often feels uncomfortable visiting. It seems like a not-so-great existence.

For whatever reason, today I thought about my own future as an elderly individual and what that life might look like. The one stark difference in my imagined future compared to my grandmother’s experience was a computer. I know sixty- and seventy-year-olds who are fairly proficient with computers (my parents among them), and the number of people that live completely sans the internet is dwindling.

While many have argued that social media has destroyed (young) people’s ability to have intelligent conversations or experience deep levels of empathy, I hypothesize that the modern internet will be a gift for the elderly. Today’s elderly experience community through a small circle of neighbors, infrequent visits from either family

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or caretakers, and sadly through one-way mediums like television, radio, or books. And that last set is what will experience the greatest shift because the channels that seniors of the future will use to pass time will actually talk back.

Even today, there are quite a few folks in their seventies who are using the basic functions of

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Facebook. It seems highly likely that in ten or twenty years, there will be nothing unusual about an octogenarian commenting on a Reddit thread or submitting a comment on YouTube (or something similar to it depending on how the internet evolves). The internet has fundamentally changed our ability to share our voice. Today the elderly consume information and relay their reactions to a small feedback loop local to them and maybe over the phone to a small circle interesting in hearing them out. Tomorrow, the feedback loop becomes wider and and will last longer because their voice can echo across the planet. My grandmother would watch the news and tell me her thoughts about how the President is running the country. If it were 2022 instead of 2012, she may have been posting her thoughts in a Facebook group or commenting on a CNN article as well.

The unfortunate reality of old age is this: The older you get, and the sicker you get, the fewer people you’re going to have in your life. No one wants to think about it or admit it, but I honestly don’t believe many people will argue this point. But the internet is never going to turn us away or ignore us. (Well, it might ignore) It offers a community so large that it will be quite impossible to be alone. While countless other complex matters are going to arise from seniors becoming a large portion of internet users, I ultimately think it’s going to be a much better existence than exists today for the elderly.

So… enjoy life and experience the “real world” as much as possible now. When your legs, ears, and eyes don’t work as well in the future, you’ll have plenty of time to cruise the internet and interact with others.


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  • Ben Kunz

    Nice. Or, digital tools could create the illusion that our friends are alive after they die. I wrote recently in Businessweek that “No one has built an Eternity App yet, but I predict that it is coming: an application that will create the illusion of immortality, that will make your voice and thoughts carry on after you are dead, an artificially intelligent version of you. Three technologies make it possible: Voice recognition, artificial intelligence simulation, and social media data sets of your personal nuances.” We could talk with dead friends, or if we die first, our voices might speak afterward to the living we leave behind. Why not? Siri almost sounds human. Plug her into your voice simulation, and add a dataset from all your thousands of past social media posts, and you’d have something that sounds and makes jokes and hypothesizes a lot like you. We all want to live forever. Someone will build this app, and then our community of friends will be as big as we need.

  • bstormhands

    Some people may not be very empathetic, but I am seeing lots of teenagers (boys and girls) with lots of empathy as they try to talk each other out of self-harm.
    However I can see the elderly more in contact with family if they are using smartphones and tablets to stay in touch rather then waiting for the occasional visit. I already see more elderly with bluetooth headsets then any other group when at the supermarket.

  • Dominic Hyland

    Very interesting take on the problem on loneliness, my own father is now nearly 91, lives independently and uses email, You Tube and the web every day from his laptop computer I bought him a few years ago – he has issues with the video recorder, but You Tube? no support issues as yet! He uses email to stay in touch with old friends too frail to travel and, increasingly, with the spouses of now deceased friends. He’s also in conversations with long forgotten relatives and exchanges photographs, stories and poetry (he’s a writer) with other people he’s met online. The Internet really has changed his life.

  • Francesca

    Great topic. I skype with my mother- who’s 71- on a regular basis. She’s moving now from mobile phone to smartphone. Her drive to learn about technologies is all about social connectivity, be in touch with family and friends. Innovation will have to help elderly with even more easier interfaces, though, with things like bigger keyboards, voice recognition, these kind of innovations will make us better connected elderly people.

  • Pendant

    Sorry to hear about the loss of your memaw.

    While your crystal ball gazing has appeal, I suspect that mine (if and when I get it back from the mender) will reveal a subtle, insidious flaw you’ve not considered: feature creep.

    In my (thirty-plus years’) experience of electronic widgetery, many upgrades have come complete with an element of downgrade, if only in that it can be necessary to ditch hard-won knowledge, and start again — oftentimes, almost from scratch. Look at the difference between MS-Office 97 and 2007, for instance. Things that once took me seconds now take me minutes, or longer, as I plough through the ‘help’ (which itself, all too often, simply doesn’t do what it says on the tin).

    My elderly mother uses the ‘net, but is constantly frustrated when things change. Just recently, hotmail was ‘upgraded’ to ‘outlook’. Now, in my ‘umble opinion, this was (mostly) an improvement: but my mum, bless her heart, is having trouble adapting to the change. And if it’s not the email system, it’s her old printer going on the frutz, obliging her to buy a new one. And, ‘naturally’, the old model being obsolete and no longer available, she has no option but to go for a completely different one; one that’s all-singing and all-dancing, but with tiny, poorly-labeled buttons her failing eyesight can’t quite make out.

    In short: if technology continues to ‘advance’ in the same manner as it has done for the last thirty years, I’m not looking forward to my dotage, not at all: for one thing, I doubt very much that it will be possible to port my Evercrack II bard into Evercrack V, and beyond…

    • Devendra Bist

      Technology should also evolve and develop also for old age people.