Technology and Social Media Helpful for Isolated Seniors

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Numerous studies and articles have lambasted misuse of social media for its ill effects on young people caught up in bullying, obsessive posting and dissatisfaction with their own lives compared with the “perfect” lives portrayed on the screen.

However, in the past year, social media has proven particularly helpful for the opposite end of the age spectrum as older adults have continued to stay at home to avoid COVID-19.

Jennine Sauriol serves as WNY regional director for admissions and marketing for Centers Health Care, parent company for Buffalo Center and Ellicott Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing. She said that technology has aided in residents in feeling less isolated.

“We’re spending a lot of time making sure families are able to keep in touch via email, Skype or Facetime,” she said. “I think it has helped our staff realize how important it is for residents to socialize and how it’s vital we have the technological advances to help them connect with family.

“Maybe previously no one thought about Facetime and Skype and a lot of our seniors didn’t think about it. Now they see the value of it. It’s something we’re now doing 10 times a day, when before it was once a month, if that.”

Whether it’s virtually attending a birthday party, chatting with grandchildren or catching up with their adult children on Facebook, technology has helped many seniors avoid feeling left out.

These kinds of measures to enhance connection are vital to good mental health, according to Timothy Holahan, osteopathic doctor and assistant professor of medicine specializing in geriatrics and palliative care with University of Rochester Medical Center.

“Socialization has always been important in nursing homes and not isolating patients,” he said. “I still think that’s very important. We just have to find good ways in terms of infection control to do that.”

He believes that the pandemic has underscored how important socialization is to populations that are already somewhat isolated, including seniors living in long-term care facilities, assisted living communities and independently in the community.

Holahan is medical director for The Hurlbut, Penfield Place and Woodside Manor. He said that at the homes he oversees, Zoom or streaming events, music and pastoral care have proven popular among residents.

“It doesn’t replace the in-person experience, but it makes it better than not having it,” he said. “They definitely get benefit out of it.”

He also hopes that the pandemic-era use of technology will improve older adults’ acceptance of technology.

But using this technology can also produce unwanted effects. For example, it can leave some older adults at increased risk for scams.

“When using social media, the risk of elder abuse, whether financial or other goes up,” Halohan said. “If they’re not prepped for that ahead of time, it could be an issue. It’s still a viable form of technology, but they need to be aware of the risks.”

In a nursing home, staff are trained to help residents deal with these issues. Older adults living independently may not be aware that anything they post may be used by a scammer. Since most older adults have many traits in common, such as grandparenting, retirement, and use of Medicare, it is easy for scammers to guess how to appeal to them. But social media can make it even easier, according to Kevin Hanna, Upstate New York regional director of external affairs for AT&T.  He said that for example, criminals can more easily pose as stranded grandchildren needing money if they know the family’s background.

He broke down the types of scams into a few categories: imitating authority, such as posing as the IRS, law enforcement, FBI or Social Security administration; temptation, with scams such as claiming the senior has won a prize but must pay a fee to claim it; and sense of urgency, which places pressure on the senior to act now to spare a grandchild from jail time.

“When seniors see these signs, those are important warning signs to notice and to get a second or third opinion and not to react right away,” Hanna said. “Typically, scammers want unusual forms of payment, like gift cards or to be wired money. They may say, ‘Your bank account is at risk. If you give us financial information, we’ll be able to secure your finances for you much more quickly.’”

Hanna urges older adults to never use public Wi-Fi for social media since anyone can tap into it and help themselves to their personal information.

Ben Roberts, director of public affairs for AT&T, urges older adults to “take advantage of the privacy controls” or get assistance in doing so to help prevent their information from getting into the wrong hands.

But they should not think that solves the problem. Hackers can still take over a trusted loved one’s account and read everything posted and formulate a slick scam from that information.

Older adults unfamiliar with social media can also believe false “news” stories, conspiracy theories and rumors posted by less-than-unbiased sources.

“It’s probably more difficult for older adults to tell the difference if they’re not experienced with the technology,” Holahan said. “If we see an increase in use of technology, we have to educate them in what’s fact checked and vetted and what’s opinions.”

He also stressed the importance of using platforms correctly to ensure that their personal information cannot be exposed.

Scams Abound

According to a new survey commissioned by AT&T, 95% of older Americans (aged 60 years or older) have experienced a scam online. These scams cost older Americans an estimated $1 billion last year, according to the FBI.

More specifically, the survey found:

• 92% of older Americans have experienced some sort of phishing attempt.

• 71% of older Americans have encountered a malicious actor claiming to be someone else (collection agent, company shutting down service, support technician, family member in trouble, etc.).

• Yet, only 30% of older Americans are worried about losing money to a scammer online.

To learn more about online safety for all ages, visit