Using certain technologies may help the “oldest old” maintain physical fitness and mental well-being—however, seniors’ motivations for using technology in the first place might affect the benefits they experience. That’s according to Stanford University research that was supported by Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD).
The study involved 445 adults aged 80 or older, who were surveyed online or via telephone. They reported on why they used information and communication technology such as cellphones, personal computers, and video streaming services, and they rated their psychological and physical well-being by reporting on domains such as life satisfaction, goal attainment, and functional limitations. Brookdale shared preliminary results last year, and now the findings have been published in Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.
It is noteworthy that the study focused on the “oldest old” age group, because investigations into “seniors” often examine those who are 65 and older, stated Tamara Sims, Ph.D., the lead author of the research report.
“The oldest old might be underrepresented because of our youth-centric culture, but they may also be overlooked in many studies because despite being the fastest growing segment of the population, historically, they are a brand new subgroup,” Sims told Senior Housing News. “In the past century, the American life span has increased an average of 30 years.”
Studies on the oldest old also may be of particular relevance for senior housing providers. As of 2010, 54% of assisted living residents were 85 or older, according to data gathered by the National Center for Health Statistics.
The benefits of technology use are related to the reasons why the oldest old are using tech, the researchers found.
Those using technology mainly to connect with family and friends reported greater life satisfaction, less loneliness, and higher goal attainment. But using tech mainly to learn new information was linked to better physical health, namely better subjective health and fewer functional limitations.
“This may be because when people report using ICT to learn new information, they are doing so to learn about or better manage their health,” the study authors wrote. “In contrast, using ICT to connect with others may be done to garner social support.”
The study did have certain limitations, including that it did not show that technology itself was causing these improvements in mental and physical well-being, only that it is correlated. Future work might also compare these findings in the oldest old with younger age groups, and assess the relationship between the frequency and type of tech use with improvements in well-being.
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The findings support the efforts that many senior living providers, including Brookdale, are putting into their tech offerings for residents. That’s because technology can be a low-cost way to “offset significant challenges to well-being encountered in the latest stage of life,” the study authors concluded.
One practical takeaway for providers might be to focus more on why residents want to engage with technology, Sims said.
“A lot of previous research examines how often older people use technology but less research focuses on what really motivates them to use it and how aligning the use of certain types of technologies with their goals might lead to higher well-being,” she said. “If you emphasize how technology can provide myriad connections to the ones we love, it may be more appealing, particularly as people get older.”
Furthermore, the findings might suggest how senior living providers can improve their programming around training on new technologies.
“What we don’t look at in our study, but would be interesting to investigate, is the possibility that reminding older adults about their motivations could reduce frustration and increase perseverance when trying to learn how to use a new technology,” Sims said.
Still, it’s important to note that the findings do not suggest technology can replace other types of activities—such as spending face-to-face time with loved ones, or getting outside to exercise—that predict quality of life and longevity, she emphasized.
“Rather, [technology] can serve as a supplement, particularly for those who may have limited opportunities to be socially engaged in person,” Sims said.
Written by Tim Mullaney
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