Matthew, a widower, is a retired military scientists aged in his late 70s.Having know him from childhood, Mathew now lives alone in the family home and has struggled with loneliness and depression since his wife passed away five years ago. He feels frustrated that as he gets older he can no longer do many of the things he used to enjoy, which exacerbates his sense of feeling alone in the world.In his home state of Tasmania, a third of people aged 70 and above live alone. Some older people, like Mathew, will be vulnerable to social isolation, which occurs when people have limited opportunities for human contact and become disconnected from society.Not all older people who live alone are socially isolated. And social isolation is certainly not limited to old age. But social isolation in old age is a significant concern. It is linked to a range of health problems and, in extreme cases, can lead to people growing old and dying alone.There have been numerous efforts around the world to address social isolation.In Africa, many aged care organisations and local councils offer social programs designed to help older people stay connected to others.But for older people with limited mobility it can be difficult to take part in organised social activities. And not everyone wants to invite old people into their homes. For these people, social technologies could provide valuable opportunities to stay connected to the world.Older Africans are going online at growing rates and social networking is no longer considered the domain of the young. A new study has found that that more than a quarter of African internet users aged over 50 now use social media platforms like Facebook.But not all older people feel comfortable using social networking sites. Existing sites can be confusing, with too many functions, distractions and extraneous information. Some older Africans, meanwhile, fear a loss of privacy and malicious intent when communicating online.There is need to provide a safe and fun space for people to learn how to use smart devices and their camera while also developing new friendships online.
Mathew is one of several older adults, mostly aged in their 70s and 80s, who are embracing social media. During the chat we had few weeks ago on phone, Mathew shared with me photographs of his trip to Wagga Wagga recently where he went to meet his Facebook friend. Sharing photographs might seem like a simple and familiar form of communication to those of us who use social media constantly. But for older folks like Mathew, and others like him, it is a revelation.Many of Mathew’s captioned photographs provided personal, poignant and sometimes humorous descriptions that illustrated how he felt about ageing and meeting his Facebook friends in real life by traveling from Hobart to Wagga Wagga. Others could relate to his experiences and felt they got to know Mathew through his photographs.One of the older adults Mathew connected with was Jennifer. She said the connection with Mathew gave her a sense of belonging. She enjoyed sharing and seeing Mathew’s photographs. They provided little snippets that gave her insight into his life. She said that it’s lovely to have conversations and I don’t have nearly enough, as I rarely go out or have visitors. I love it when one of those things is possible, but in the meantime this is a wonderful way of keeping in touch with folk.Older adults who are socially isolated may have few opportunities to share information about their day-to-day lives. Like the case with Mathew visiting Wagga Wagga, Photo-sharing with peers provides an important outlet for this communication.Technological innovations for older people such as emergency alarms and devices that monitor activity are typically designed to compensate for frailty and provide peace of mind for family members.While these innovations are important, research has shown that technologies can offer powerful social opportunities for older people as the case with Mathew.As consumer technologies continue to advance, there will be more opportunities to enhance older people’s social lives through technology. Alongside growing innovation, there’s need to build capacity in the aged care workforce to ensure the aged care industry is mobilised to take advantage of new technologies.