Donna Arriaga is a consultant with Washington Metro OASIS to help establish community-based computer learning programs for seniors. She is also author of Collaborative Insights, a blog about technology and social media for senior living and elder care professionals.
Before moving to the D.C. area, Arriaga worked as the Manager of Online Communications for Cedar Sinai Park, a nonprofit organization that provides care services for older adults. Also while in Portland, she served as co-organizer for PDXTech4Good, a group established to help nonprofits use technology to meet their mission.
Arriaga is passionate about the convergence of technology and social change, and its impact on seniors and their caregivers.
How did you get your start working with seniors and technology? At what point did social media enter the picture?
DA: My start with seniors and tech began in the Development Office at Cedar Sinai Park, a nonprofit organization that provides care services for seniors. My focus was heavily aimed at leveraging online tools to help the organization meet its mission — fundraising, advocacy, and educating seniors and their families about care and aging issues.
Social media entered the picture pretty early on. I was using tools ranging from Wiki to Twitter and Facebook for outreach and education. But the magic really sparked when I decided that I didn’t want to just use these platforms — I wanted to teach seniors how to use them too.
I’ve always valued social media for its ability to empower and give voice to the average person. But as platforms like Facebook and Twitter grew in popularity, I was seeing a whole new kind of digital divide. Not only were seniors underrepresented in online discussions, but a lack of understanding effectively closed off many seniors from everyday references to social media. For example, public radio invites people to tweet their thoughts and questions, organizations ask people to “like” their pages, and news stations tweet real-time news. I quickly realized that, for some seniors, these references meant very little.
My primary goal in teaching seniors about social media has not been to get them to be power users. My goal has simply been to foster an understanding, to help close the cultural tech gap, and then to empower seniors to decide for themselves whether they want to participate. It all boils down to informed choice.
What would you say are the most useful recent advances in technology for seniors, both online and off?
DA: There’s a lot of tech out there that holds great promise for seniors, but cutting-edge technology like smart houses and bionics don’t quite fall under the “useful” category yet — for many, they’re too cost-prohibitive. I’d say that perhaps the most useful recent advances are associated with e-readers and tablets for seniors. For starters, they offer seniors a plethora of books to choose from, and font sizes can easily be adjusted. Choice is greatly expanded over the more limited selection of books available in large print. Also, tablets’ reliance on apps (and absence of a navigatable file structure) offer greater ease of use — sharing photos and videos with just a couple of screen taps, Skype-ready with just an app download and an account, etc.
There are also exciting developments in the Internet of Things (IoT). For example, a bracelet developed by Jawbone can track data on eating, sleeping, and activity patterns. Data can easily be accessed through smartphones. This technology would be especially useful to people who need to monitor diet and exercise. Additionally, this level of data tracking could be useful for older, more fragile adults and their family members.
What, in your opinion, is the best way to introduce seniors to social media platforms?
DA: Well, we’ve all witnessed that one size rarely fits all (despite what those clothing labels tell you). With that said, I think the best way is to do it slowly. Talk with seniors about the platforms before sitting in front of a computer and starting up a new account. Explain the big-picture functionality and provide plenty of practical usage examples.
It’s also important to understand a little bit about what and how the individual currently communicates. Does she love to exchange photos with family members? Maybe he’s a cook or master gardener who enjoys exchanging trade secrets. Utilize this personalized understanding and show seniors how social media can be used to enhance their sharing and communications.
I think it’s also extremely important to avoid romanticizing or idealizing social media. The goal is not to “sell” or “pitch” social media. It’s to educate seniors on the possibilities.
What would you consider to be one of your favorite success stories about social media use in an elder care environment?
DA: My favorite success stories involve residents’ use of Skype. Often, residents of assisted living or nursing homes have moved great distances to be closer to an adult child. This move is associated with a substantial degree of loss — leaving behind a home, friends, and other family members. But Skype has provided many residents with the ability to maintain those personal connections. One of my favorite quotes about Skype came from a resident of Cedar Sinai Park: ”Just the other day, my granddaughters were showing me [on Skype] what they had painted using watercolor pencils. I was so proud they were following in grandma’s footsteps. It was almost as good as seeing them in person.”
You recently wrote about China mandating that children visit their older relatives who are in care. The question raised was, “does Skype count as a visit?” What other disruptive questions are being raised at the intersection of technology in elder care?
DA: Monitoring devices and automated data tracking raise a lot of questions around privacy. On the one hand, monitoring technology can support safer aging in place while also providing valuable information and peace of mind for adult children. Behavioral indicators may serve as early signs of decreased appetite or physical activity. On the other hand, all this monitoring can feel a little like “Big Brother” has just stepped into the home. On the upside, monitoring technology and data tracking has come a long way. In this arena, webcams are a thing of the past. Instead, less invasive technologies like motion detectors and contact sensors are being used.
If you had to pick five resources to recommend for seniors just dipping their toes into the social media pool, what would they be?
- Grandchildren are a storehouse of savvy social media information. They’ll help install Skype, iron out any problems with the new webcam, and walk (or run) through the steps of setting up an account. They’re also a fantastic source of motivation. Want to see new pics of the kids or grandkids? Chances are, they’re on Facebook.
- Common Craft is an excellent resource. Their “In Plain English” videos cover general social media and social networking topics as well as more targeted videos on Twitter, Wikis, and online photo-sharing. The videos deliver high-quality, easily digestible content.
- WeAreVisible.com is a fantastic site that offers step-by-step guides on using Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and more. Each guide has a video to walk you through the process. Guides also have easy-to-understand written instructions with screen shots.
- OASIS offers a range of courses on computers and social media specifically for people age 50+. The courses are paced for optimal learning and are often accompanied by information-rich coursebooks/handouts. (Full Disclosure: I currently work as a consultant for the OASIS Connections program. OASIS Connections establishes community-based computer learning programs for seniors.)
- SeniorNet also offers computer classes (including social media courses) tailored for people 50+. In addition to their learning centers, SeniorNet also offers online learning programs.
What about five resources for elder care providers?
- NTEN (Nonprofit Technology Network) is a leading-edge resource and community dedicated to issues of technology for nonprofit use. Eldercare providers can find extensive information and best practices that can be applied to care settings — especially in the areas of community engagement, outreach, marketing, and advocacy.
- CareNetworks Blog by Brian Geyser covers social media best practices for senior living and long-term care. His blog offers detailed content ranging from case studies to reports on leveraging social media for long-term care organizations. And, to top it off, Brian’s energy, passion, and knowledge shine through each post.
- <ChangingAging challenges conventional views on aging, and they do a fantastic job of using their blog to do just that. ChangingAging delivers engaging and inspiring content that helps remind professionals why we are committed to the field of aging. Their Twitter feed (and, to some extent, FB page) are, unfortunately, used almost exclusively as distribution channels for their blog. But the blog and Youtube channel are outstanding.
- WeAreMedia.org is a must-use resource for elder care providers who are just starting out with social media integration. WeAreMedia is a collaborative project driven by nonprofit tech community members and curated by NTEN. The project offers case studies, worksheets, and links to guide the development of an organization’s first social media plan.
- Social media meetup groups are a great way to exchange practices, commiserate, and learn new techniques. A few good meetups to start with are NetSquared’s Net Tuesdays, NTEN’s 501Tech Club, and the Social Media Club.
What would you consider to be the most rewarding experience you’ve had while working in this field?
DA: My most rewarding experiences arrive when I’m teaching seniors about tech/social media and I see that ["Eureka!"] glimmer of excitement in their eyes. These moments often teach me new perspectives on social media as well. For example, I was talking to a sprightly octogenarian about Twitter and was explaining how the platform can be used to “listen in” or to participate in a public conversation. He suddenly looked at me and said, “I get it. It’s like the old party lines — only it’s on the computer.”
Any final thoughts you’d like to share with our readers?
DA: Tech and social media for seniors is an extremely rewarding area of practice and study. It’s exciting to play a role in helping to close the cultural/technology divide. In the end, it’s about helping to empower and give voice to a generation that stood by our side and taught us to walk and talk.
Image courtesy of Donna Arriaga, used with permission.