Loneliness can be considered a disease: a malaise of the spirit (when it doesn’t also affect the mind and body). Loneliness is, in fact, one of the major causes of depression.
Those affected by loneliness the most are the elderly: suffering from poor health and low energy levels, are often relegated to the margins of a fast paced society that often forgets how much they still have to offer.
But there are also those older spirits who don’t want to live on the sidelines, and that, even if some of their youthful vigour and enthusiasm has faded, are keen to keep up with the times.
This is demonstrated for example by the fact that many of them have enthusiastically taken to technological tools like the Internet, which certainly are not part of their cultural background.
Here is some data...
Elderly and the Internet: connection is possible at all ages
While it is still true that there is a gap between the young and the elderly when it comes to use of the Internet, it is also true that the gap is decreasing year by year.
In Italy, for example, the twelfth Censis-Ucsi Report on Communication - published in March 2015 – revealed that there has been a steady increase in the use of Internet and social media within the age range of 55 to 74 years.
Today in Italy there are 35 million users browsing the Internet, 50% of Italians are registered on Facebook, and 11% of them are in the older age category.
The Italian Association of Psychogeriatry (AIP) estimates that about one and a half million elder uses Facebook to keep in touch with relatives and friends, and that, thanks to the network's stimuli, have less memory disorders and ‘younger’ brains (you can read about this in The boom in the elderly using the internet: why this is positive).
This boom in the increase in elderly use of the internet is backed up by data coming from the USA, where the elderly on the web is even more consistent: 43% of over 65 now use social networks, whereas in 2006, only 1% did so.
What are the main reasons the elderly are using social media?
A study conducted by two Penn State State University researchers revealed the main reasons why in America older people have adopted to social media on-masse:
- the need to maintain pre-existing social relationships;
- the desire to "build" new relationships (albeit virtual);
- the curiosity and the desire to "follow" the paths of growth of children and grandchildren.
All these contribute to their peace of mind.
To add more evidence about how social media benefits elderly health, there is also another study conducted by Shelia Cotten of Michigan State University and published on the Journal of Gerontology where the correlation between Internet use for socializing and a lower chance to suffer from depression is discussed: elderly people using social media services have 30% less chance of becoming depressed than those who do not use them (read Impact of Internet Use on Loneliness and Contact with Others Among Older Adults: Cross-Sectional Analysis).
Certainly there are risks (in the Internet, seniors are more easy preys to fishing or other scams, as discussed in the first article mentioned), but overall the data is positive: they confirm that, even for older people, life is more beautiful if shared and that, used in the right way, the
Internet can help people live together and feel far less alone.
Communicating: an innate human need
This should not be surprising for communicating and having friends is an innate human need.
Humans are social beings, and, as Aristotle put it, "friends are necessary in prosperity as in need, in youth as in old age, in private life as in public life. Friends are the largest of the external assets; no one would choose to live without friends, even though he owned all the other assets."
The elderly, like the young and very young therefore need to keep in touch with other people, to share their own lives, their interests, their fears.
And why not do it through the Internet?
Sociologist Marshall McLuhan argues that every means of communication is an extension of our physical and nervous system and amplifies our sensory and cognitive potential and helps us to develop our sociality.
And in the last few decades the instrument that more than any other could be consider "an extension of us" - because it allows us to communicate and remain connected with others - is undoubtedly the Internet.
It seems that many older people have understood it too...