This Friday I asked the question during the #HCSMEU tweetup of whether governments should be doing more to teach the elderly how to use technology, including social media, to help improve their care.  My inspiration behind this question was the fact that I had just set my elderly parents up on Skype so that they could have video calls with me and the family but also with elderly friends.  One of these friends was of particular concern as she was a widow, living alone and with no friends or family near her and she was obviously getting increasingly depressed.  Skype would offer her a greater level of interaction with friends which may help her feel less alone which in turn may have a positive effect on her health.


One of the points raised in the tweetup for the importance of identifying actual needs before ploughing government money into an initiative.  This is a basic but critical point and as obvious as it seems is sometimes overlooked (particularly by government bureaucrats).  Identifying the need will also help in funding a social initiative that will have a lasting impact.


So what are the sorts of needs that could be identified where technology and social media could benefit the elderly?  There are plenty of examples for the use of technology in telehealth and in remote monitoring of the elderly in their homes.  Social media however is a less well explored area.


For Alzheimer’s patients social media can help patients in staying mentally alert, for example through social gaming or practicing (or indeed learning) languages. 


Social media can provide social support via online support groups and discussion forums to cancer and depression patients.  Being able to discuss problems and concerns online, sometimes anonymously or with strangers, can be hugely beneficial.  It can also be very comforting and supportive to discuss side effects and other aspects of the disease with fellow patients.


The simple act of staying in touch with friends and family can help maintain a healthy state of mind which has a large impact on elderly health in general.  Social media very clearly makes staying in touch so much easier, and tools such as skype mean that the social touch is no longer limited to a phone call but now can mean a video call.  Social media is also generally free or low cost – another important point when looking at pensioners often living on small budgets.


So what can the government do to help and support the elderly in using social media?  The first thing that springs to mind is providing classes and IT support – for example through local community centres.    Introductory sessions could be run working with local schools  or colleges or working with local associations with high elderly memberships. Having a support helpline could also be an idea – where the elderly could ring up when they have IT problems.


National health services, and in particular GPs and other HCPs with high interactions with the elderly, could also be educated in how social media could be used by, and be beneficial to, the elderly.  Hard copy brochures, with simple step by step guides, could be left with these HCPs and they in turn could then pass the message and the brochure onto the elderly.


But perhaps the first thing the government could do is the fund research into how social media could be beneficial – this would in turn identify the need – and then also provide the ROI for anyone interested in funding initiatives for the elderly in social media.


In the meantime it is up to friends and family to show much patience and help educate elderly relatives on how to set up and use social media in a way that will enrich and provide real value.

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