Technology A ‘Use It Or Lose It’ And A ‘Move It Or Lose It’ Proposition, Study Suggests….

Social technology isn't just a 'use it or lose it' proposition; it's a 'move it or lose it' one, too, Brookdale's O'Neil says.

Social technology isn’t just a ‘use it or lose it’ proposition; it’s a ‘move it or lose it’ one, too, Brookdale’s O’Neil says.

Bill Myers

Good morning, ProviderNation. Elders who embraced modern social technology tended to feel more satisfied with their lives, less lonely, more confident about attaining their goals, and be healthier and more active than their tech-averse peers, a new study by the fine folks at Stanford Center on Longevity has found.

Overall, the more tech-savvy the elders tended to be, the better their mental and physical health, researchers found. But, intriguingly, elders who used new technology for social reasons—to stay in touch with family, connect with friends, etc.—were much better off than those elders who used technology for non-social purposes (crosswords, say), the study finds.

In one way, the findings are almost painfully obvious—give folks tools to attack loneliness, they’ll feel less lonely. In another way, though, the findings are terribly subtle—they suggest that technology isn’t as important as the way it’s used.

‘Isolation Is Toxic’

“I think we know that if you use technology inappropriately, it can be just as socially isolating,” says Kevin O’Neil, chief medical officer at Brookdale Senior Living, whose company spearheaded the Stanford study. “You see these people in restaurants on their iPhones, not talking to each other. That’s no good, either.”

What that means is that care center leaders not only have to be willing to embrace new technologies, but to embrace them with the goal of making folks less isolated, not more.

“We know that social isolation is toxic,” he adds. “There’s just a much higher risk of depression, stroke, even Alzheimer’s disease. I’ve always felt that wellness is not just our bodies—it’s our minds and our hearts and our souls.”

Connected Caregivers

That’s music to the ears of the good people of the National Center for Assisted Living, who think that technology isn’t only a great way to connect elders with friends and families—but to connect elders with their caregivers in fun ways, too.

“This research shows that senior living providers need to be on top of their game on integrating technology–not just from an operational standpoint, but also as part of providing high-class customer experience,” says Rachel Reeves, spokeswoman for NCAL. “It could be a unique way to help bridge the gap between the younger generation that cares for these individuals and the residents.”

O’Neil and his colleagues have pioneered an approach they’ve called Optimum Life. The idea is not just to buy new technologies, but to be open to any innovation—high- or low-tech—that will help people feel less lonely.

Design Barriers

O’Neil also argues that elders, and those who care for them, have to get onto the ground floor of discussions about new technologies. A lot of seniors, for instance, struggle with eyesight. It follows, then, that apps with low-contrast fonts and pastel backgrounds just won’t cut it. Similarly, touchscreens are a lot more friendly to arthritic hands than keyboards, O’Neil says.

“We’ve found that embracing this kind of technology—especially in connecting with grandchildren and families—really makes a difference,” he says.

This is going to be truer as time goes on, not less. One thing O’Neil says he worries about are the one-third of elders in the Stanford study who don’t use any kind of technology.

“It’s one of those things where people are becoming more socially isolated,” he says. “They become disconnected from the outside world. It’s really important that we educate the administration about the clinical importance of these technologies.”

Emerging evidence exits that using technology helps spur cognition, even in elder brains, O’Neil says. But, as important as it may be to use technology to get minds fired up, it’s even more important to use technology to help people connect with one another, he says.

“The old adage is true—‘Use it or lose it,’” O’Neil says. “But it’s also, move it or lose it.”

Bill Myers is Provider’s senior editor. Email him at wmyers@providermagazine.com. Follow him on Twitter, @ProviderMyers.

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