April 12, 2019
A growing number of older Americans are now connected—going online, using smartphones, and embracing social media. In fact, seniors’ use of the internet has jumped substantially, growing from 12 percent in 2000 to 67 percent in 2016, according to a report by the Pew Research Center. In the same year, 34 percent of people over 65 reported that they engage on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
Some retirees, like Sandi Bohler of St. Louis, have mixed feelings about their new tech habits. “All my friends were on there, and I wanted to keep up with what was happening,” says Bohler, 72, of her decision to join Facebook last year. She likes how Facebook prompts her to remember people’s birthdays and lets her see her daughter’s vacation photos. Still, Bohler wishes people would just pick up the phone to talk. She says she’s a bit guarded online; she doesn’t have a profile picture or post anything personal—just occasional jokes or cartoons.
Like 42 percent of seniors surveyed in 2016, Bohler also is part of a growing number of Americans age 65 or older who own a smartphone—up from 18 percent from 2013.
Bohler says the phone is handy for emergencies and once learned how to take pictures and send them from her phone, but has since forgotten how. For her, the smartphone is best for keeping in touch with her grandchildren. She texts to ask them what they want for Christmas, what time to pick them up, or just to say she is thinking of them. “What I don’t like about my phone is I’m never free of it,” Bohler says.
After years of having a flip phone, Art Sweeney of San Antonio is on the verge of buying a smartphone. “I feel backed into a corner. I’m finally conceding I need to get one,” says the 85-year-old widower, who retired in 1990 when computers were just becoming integrated into his work in aircraft maintenance with the U.S. Air Force. Without ads in the newspaper, the only way to get notices about upcoming concerts and programs is to go online, he says.
Sweeney had a computer at home at one time, but he stopped using it when it got hacked and his printer stopped working. “I got fed up with all the pop-ups and interruptions. I didn’t see the value,” says Sweeney. He says he is fascinated with new technology but just doesn’t need to be on social media to stay in touch with his grandkids. “They know my phone number, and if I call, they answer. I’d rather talk and hear their voice,” he says.
Joyce Feustel, 70, of Lakewood, Colorado, says that she’s a very social person and that being active on LinkedIn and Facebook for more than 10 years has made her feel even more connected. She retired from a full-time job in sales and began teaching others, particularly Baby Boomers, how to use social media.
“I had never really found a calling in my career, but this just struck a chord with me,” says Feustel, who calls herself a social media tutor for Baby Boomers. “I brag about my age. I don’t mind being old.”
Once she shows clients her tips and tricks, Feustel says she finds people are often relieved. “They realize it wasn’t as complicated as they were making it in their minds,” she says. “People love social media, but they think it is all one thing. There are such different cultures and practices on all the different sites. There is a demystifying that goes on.”
Like many older Americans, Feustel finds social media is a way to stay in touch with faraway friends and feel close to members of her extended family. “When my nephew and his wife had a baby, I saw pictures from the delivery room. When my niece got engaged, there was the ring on her finger the day it happened,” says Feustel. “It was just like, ‘Oh, wow!’ You can stay so current.”
Still, older adults face unique barriers in making the transition to new technologies. The Pew research shows that 34 percent of older internet users say they have little to no confidence in their ability to use electronic devices to perform online tasks, while 48 percent say that this statement describes them very well: “When I get a new electronic device, I usually need someone else to set it up or show me how to use it.”
To learn more, read the 2017 Pew Research Center report, “Tech Adoption Climbs Among Older Adults.”