The LABS
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The LABS

How older adults can fight isolation online

When it comes to our older generation, we never really think of them as part of online communities. The digital space is the home of the digital native, and we don’t often see older adults as having a part to play in developing our online spaces.

But research is demonstrating that older people are active in online communities with their peers, where they build social capital and contribute to a vibrant online community. And this contribution plays a key role in developing their resilience in the face of social isolation and exclusion.

Empowerment and support

Mostafa Kamalpour, a PhD candidate at QUT, is investigating how older people interact in dedicated forums on social networking site Reddit.

“The world’s population is growing fast, and our general population in countries like Australia is ageing. We need to understand how we can better support our older populations to have a robust, resilient society,” Kamalpour explained.

“Luckily, older people are giving us an insight into their needs, experiences and stories by contributing to online communities.

“They have valuable life experience, and they can share this with us in online environments.”

Illustration: soberve via Getty Images

Changes to the family unit, lifestyles, societal structure and the economy have all pushed older people into more isolated social positions.

“A lot of factors impact social isolation: families live further apart, people experience bereavement with the death of a spouse, or older people struggle with adverse health status,” Kamalpour explained.

“Online communities empower older people and offer them important social support. This improves their resilience and their wellbeing in the long term.”

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity — the more people can contribute to and seek support from their social ecosystem, the more robust their resilience becomes.

And it’s not just seeking help or advice that can contribute to improved empowerment in older people online.

“A lot of the value for older people is in giving back to those communities. They may have already received support, or have found valuable advice. Contributing more to that social ecosystem is hugely important for developing resilience,” Kamalpour said.

For this bouncing back to be successful, having access to personal and environmental resources for this is key. This is where communities like Reddit have a role to play.

“The resources that are shared and developed within Reddit improve resilience not just for older people but for everyone,” Kamalpour said.

Why Reddit?

Reddit is a complex collection of online forums and groups (sub-reddits) where users can contribute knowledge and experience, or seek information on specific topics. It’s one of the internet’s largest online communities, with over 430 million monthly users (according to the site’s own 2020 statistics).

“It’s different to something like Facebook, where older people are sharing photos and interacting with people they already know,” Kamalpour said.

“Online communities like Reddit let them share their experiences and seek advice from strangers with similar issues and similar lived experience, as part of a global community of resource-sharing.”

Kamalpour is researching the specific sub-reddits for older people over 60, caregivers, ageing and retirement-related discussion.

“An older person can join the community and discuss issues related to their own experience. They can find peers with the same experience and get information and advice,” Kamalpour explained.

“Caregivers too can join the community and get support, which is particularly important as they might feel increasingly isolated while caring for older people. That connection and interaction is essential for their resilience.”

Illustration: soberve via Getty Images

There may be some truth to the idea that older people struggle when it comes to digital skills, though.

“There are definitely generational differences in digital literacy,” Kamalpour said.

“The uptake rate is much lower in older adults. Use of technology is dependent on many factors, like level of education, culture, the kind of family you grew up in.

“But we can’t say that older adults don’t use technology — they definitely do. It’s actually quite surprising how many older adults there are on Reddit.”

Where to from here?

Kamalpour would like to see the evidence he gathers be used by aged care providers to improve support for older people.

“In many conversations with older adults, they’re looking to be heard. They’re vocal about issues that they’re facing, and this is a valuable primary source of information,” Kamalpour said.

“Governments and aged care providers can learn directly from older adults, change their policies and be better prepared to meet the needs of older people.”

While older people may often be forgotten in the fabric of our online communities, Kamalpour’s research demonstrates that they’re there, and they have an important role to play.

“By sharing different experiences and building social capital, we’re all contributing to a valuable social ecosystem,” Kamalpour said.

“Listening to and learning from older adults will help build resilience, not just among older populations but at every level of our communities.”

More information

Explore more research at QUT’s Science and Engineering Faculty.

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