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 who 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 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 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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