I recently came across this heart-warming news story about an elderly woman who found comfort, humour, and friendship to ease her suffering from cancer from connecting with others on Instagram.
I have a soft spot in my heart for older people. I volunteered and later worked as a researcher and computer teacher for senior citizens while I was completing my undergrad. I loved listening to their stories and was fascinated by the way their resilience to huge life changes (the death of a spouse they’d been married to for 70 years, watching friends suffer from dementia, or losing the ability to walk without assistance). They took so much in stride and were able to view these traumatic events in the context of their whole life–so that they could smile about happy memories and provide insightful commentary on difficult subjects.
They brought this commentary to and resilience to learning about technology, too. Some of them loved it and jumped right in…and others loved to hate it, only wanting to learn for the sake of necessity. Social media had not quite exploded in the way it has now, but I do remember they were fascinated by Twitter and the concept of posting short messages. I think Twitter is a user-friendly interface that could be great for seniors in may ways that Facebook is not. I hope in the future we can find ways to harness social media’s power and make it accessible for older adults so they can share some of their wisdom with us.
Addressing the information literacy needs of senior citizens is a crucial role that public libraries must play. Older adults have increased leisure time that they can devote to social events, recreation, learning, community service, and physical activity. Unfortunately, as they age, many adults face increased social isolation, barriers to using technology, and limited access to the library and information. Within the next 20 years, 1 of every 4 or 5 Canadians will be over the age of 65 (CLA, 2002). In serving this demographic, libraries must remember that senior citizens are not a homogenous group and that “within the category of ‘older adults’ lie several generations with different life experiences and different sets of expectations” (CLA, 2002). While we cannot generalize social software use to all older adults, it is important to plan services and training for them. By designing social media training for older adults, public libraries can bridge the digital divide, promote lifelong learning, and improve the overall quality of life for this growing demographic of library users.
Hamilton Public Library: Social Media for Senior Citizens
Hamilton Public Library currently offers numerous programs that support technology skills for older adults. Many programs focus on basic computer skills such as Microsoft Word, searching the Internet, or using eReaders and downloading eBooks and audiobooks to personal devices. All Hamilton Public Library computer learning programs are entirely free and require registration. There are often waiting lists for computer training courses as they are so popular. Registration opens 1 week before classes run and must be done over the phone. One program, Social Media: Facebook 101 is offered at six different branches across the system. It is a one-time 90-minute class where patrons “learn the basics of Facebook including how to set up an account and privacy settings” (HPL, 2014).
HPL’s Book a Librarian program allows patrons over the age of 18 to book an appointment with a librarian for one hour to tackle any computer issue not covered in a computer help class. This service or program is offered at thirteen branches across the system. In many ways, HPL’s current Book a Librarian program is ideal for helping senior citizens use social media. The meeting is scheduled ahead of time, and the patron and librarian can interact in a quiet room, one-on-one. Most of the time, the program is used for e-book and personal device help, however the patron can bring in their own laptop computers, or the librarian could sit with them at a public computer or use a library laptop. At Hamilton Public Library, space is not an issue. The libraries have quiet areas reserved for Book a Librarian sessions.
Increasingly, libraries depend on the Internet and social software to reach out to their communities. In a 2013 survey of North American public libraries, 92% used social media websites to some degree (Singer & Agosto, 2013). HPL has an active social media presence. Its social media policy states that it aims to: “[e]xtend the reach of HPL’s online message, thereby improving relationships with library customers, potential customers and key influencers […] Provide an interactive, real-time platform using an informal/human voice to engage in dialog [and to] Provide a simple method for customers to provide feedback and seek assistance” (HPL, 2014). In order to serve all members of the community equally, HPL should help senior citizens use social software. While using social software can help more people learn about events and services offered by the library, let them actively engage in conversation with it, there is a danger of marginalizing those who do not use social media.
In order to ensure it reaches all members of the community, the library should offer training and courses to those less comfortable with technology. The same survey of libraries’ use of social media found that only 25% offered courses on social media (Singer & Agosta, 2013). 33% (like HPL) offer computer courses for seniors, but these may not specifically address social software.
Barriers to Access
Social media training specifically targeted at older adults is crucial because they face unique barriers. Senior citizens must overcome many barriers when learning to use computers, the Internet, and social media. A recent study showed only 53% of adults over 65 uses the Internet (Singer & Agosto, 2013). This number gets even lower when looking at seniors over 75–only 34% use the Internet (Singer & Agosto, 2013). However, the research shows that when seniors do learn to use the Internet it becomes an activity that they engage in daily (Singer & Agosta, 2013). A recent study by PEW Research Centre found that the fastest growing demographic for social media use is people over 65 (NPR, 2013).
Some reasons that senior citizens have reported not learning to use the Internet include a lack of perceived need or feeling pressured to learn new technologies rather than wanting to. They report not having a use for it or being too busy to spend time on a computer (Singer & Agosto, 2013). A lack of confidence with technologies means they also worry about doing something wrong and the consequences of making a mistake. They feel anxious about finding lost documents, files, and programs that seem to go missing (Singer & Agosta, 2013). Another worry is over privacy. Unfamiliar terminology and difficult to use interfaces can also reinforce feelings of alienation.
Once older adults start learning how to use a computer, they may face further barriers related to declining cognitive and physical abilities. They report having difficulty remembering what to do, understanding terminology, or suffer motor skill and vision loss that make using a computer or device challenging (Choi & DeNitto, 2013). Social media sites and many web browsers are not designed with usability in mind for older adults. They may experience difficulty navigating because of declining dexterity, vision, or memory. Older adults report usability problems caused by small fonts, difficulty of navigation, perceptual, motor skills, and cognitive demands (Choi & DeNitto, 2013). These difficulties can quickly lead to frustration, anxiety, and lower confidence, which can deter them from learning at all (Choi & DiNitto, 2013).
There is evidence that the digital divide for seniors is also related to demographic and socioeconomic traits. Choi and DeNitto found that education is one of the strongest indicators of Internet use (2013). For the oldest group of users, social support and financial resources were the biggest barriers to Internet use (Choi & DeNitto, 2013).
At Hamilton Public Library, they have found the main barrier for accessing help with social media is being unable to visit the library to keep a Book a Librarian appointment. For this reason, the library is considering an outreach program to support computer skill development in older adults.
Benefits of Social Media
Though poor health can be a barrier to accessing the Internet and social media, Choi and DiNitto also point out that health problems may motivate senior citizens to seek health information online (2013). Senior citizens depend most heavily on their friends and family for health information and to support their health needs. Social media can help them stay on top of their medical needs by keeping them in contact with loved ones. Computer and Internet use has been linked to better overall physical health (Choi & DeNitto, 2013).
Despite the possible health and social benefits of using the Internet to access health information, seniors sometimes do not feel motivated to learn because they see no use for the Internet. Social software interaction may actually motivate older adults to continue learning how to navigate the Internet. It would increase for the perceived usefulness and need for the Internet. Seniors rely on friends and family for computer help and support—social media use could help seniors troubleshoot computer problems and support continued learning (Choi & DiNitto, 2013).
Social software can have mental health and social benefits as well. This period life can be difficult: older adults may face the loss of a spouse, moving out of their own home, or a transition to assisted living. Deteriorating physical health and ability may lead to isolation. Associate Professor of Psychology T.J. McCallum, Ph.D. found that seniors who engaged technology have higher self-esteem and greater social interaction compared to seniors not involved with technology (Freeman, 2012). Continued learning leads to a sense of purpose and better brain health. Researchers have found that older caregivers benefitted from online social interaction intervention to relieve social isolation and depressive symptoms (Choi & DiNitto, 2013). Online communication has been shown to be responsible for expanding networks of close relationships, leading to face-to-face interactions for older adults (Choi & DiNitto, 2013). Older adult computer users are also more likely to be employed, be members of community organizations, and do volunteer work (Choi & DiNitto, 2013). Based on their research, Choi & DiNitto suggest that there is a synergistic relationship between social capital and adoption of Internet technology. If you can teach an isolated individual about the Internet, it can strengthen their ties to relatives, support groups, and activities (2013).
Finally, I think it is important to note that there are benefits for society to having more older adults using social media. To hear their stories, opinions, and wisdom on current affairs and to create opportunities for intergenerational connections is one great benefit of social media training. Public libraries should make it possible for older adults to actively engage with social media and create places for their voices to be heard.
One crucial element of HPL’s social media training will be providing an outreach service to those who cannot make it to the library. Programs that are most successful happen inside senior living communities or nursing homes so that seniors do not have to worry about leaving their own home (Freeman, 2012). One of the benefits of new technology like Smartphones and tablets is that education is more portable and affordable. Libraries no longer need entire computer labs to offer instruction on social media. This means they can more easily leave the library to offer training.
HPL should follow the guidelines set out by the Canadian Library Association for Library and Information Services for Older Adults. It recommends that libraries “[r]each out to older adults in the community who are unable to get to the library” (CLA, 2002). They should promote this service through local media, seniors’ organizations and centres, public health agencies, and other community agencies working with older people (CLA, 2002). They should carefully plan to meet the needs of different older adults in the community by acquiring current data about the older population and by involving older adults in the planning process (CLA, 2002).
Programs that are specifically targeted to older adults can be helpful, as seniors will not have to worry about “keeping up” (Choi & DeNitto, 2013). HPL can ensure that these programs are tailored to seniors’ information needs and focus on connecting them to their friends and family as they are most interested in services like Skype and email that help them stay connected to the people they are close to (Freeman, 2012). They are also interested in connecting with social services and health information (Singer & Agosta, 2013). Hamilton Public Library can help seniors overcome their fear of using social media by addressing privacy concerns and providing tips and guidance for internet safety. They should emphasize that making mistakes is normal, but they won’t do anything to break the computer or make it blow up!
Research has proven some best practices for delivering computer instruction to older adults. HPL must begin by insuring the space in which it is offering lessons is safe, comfortable, accessible, and inviting for older people (Singer & Agosta, 2013). Small class sizes (no more than six) or ideally one-on-one training makes learning more successful (Singer & Agosta, 2013). Providing guidelines and tip sheets before and after instruction will aid with memory and retention—enabling learners to practice at home or in the library (Singer & Agosta, 2013). The training should incorporate hand-on aspects (doing rather than passively learning). Library staff should focus individualized attention on learners and emphasize their early successes to build self-confidence. Considering the anxieties and social pressures older adults feel when learning new technologies, it is of the upmost importance to foster a sense of community, support, and patience.
Because the digital divide for older adults is still very real, Hamilton Public Library should focus its efforts on the people who are disadvantaged when learning about computers. Those with low social capital: older age groups, racial/ethnic minority adults, older adults with low education and low income, and those living alone have the most to gain from social media. Though Hamilton Public Library already offers a Facebook course and its Book a Librarian program, it can better meet the needs of senior citizens by creating an outreach program that lets them learn in their own spaces.
Block, M. & Cornish, A. (2013, November 25). Why are seniors the fastest growing demographic on social media? All Things Considered. NPR. Transcript. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=247220424.
Choi, N. & DiNotto, D. (2013). Internet use among older adults: association with health needs, psychological capital, and social capital. Journal of Medical Internet Research. 15(5): e97. Retrieved from http:www.jmir.org/2013/5/e97/.
CLA (2002). Canadian Guidelines on Library and Information Services for Older Adults. Retrieved from http://www.cla.ca/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Position_Statements&Template=/ M/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=3029.
Freeman, Kate. (November 30, 2012). Social Savvy Seniors Have Higher Self-Esteem. Mashable. Retrieved from http://mashable.com/2012/11/30/social-media-seniors self-esteem/.
Hamilton Public Library. (2014). Social Media Policy. Hamilton Public Library. Retrieved from http://www.hpl.ca/articles/social-media-policy.
Singer, D., & Agosto, D. (2013, Nov). Reaching senior patrons in the digitized library. Public Libraries, 52, 38-42. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1476857915?accountid=15115.