Tech Use Benefits ‘Oldest Old,’ Stanford Research Suggests

The “oldest old” in this country are most likely to turn to technology to keep in touch with family and friends—and that reason for using tech has been linked to a number of benefits for this group of seniors. That’s according to Stanford University research that was supported by Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD), one of the largest home health providers in the nation.

The study involved 445 adults aged 80 or older, who were surveyed online or via telephone. They reported on why they used information and communication technology such as cellphones, personal computers, and video streaming services, and they rated their psychological and physical well-being by reporting on domains such as life satisfaction, goal attainment, and functional limitations. Brookdale shared preliminary results last year, and now the findings have been published in Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.

It is noteworthy that the study focused on the “oldest old” age group, because investigations into “seniors” often examine those who are 65 and older, stated Tamara Sims, Ph.D., the lead author of the research report and a research scientist at the Stanford Center on Longevity.

“The oldest old might be underrepresented because of our youth-centric culture, but they may also be overlooked in many studies because despite being the fastest growing segment of the population, historically, they are a brand new subgroup,” Sims told Home Health Care News. “In the past century, the American life span has increased an average of 30 years.”

The benefits of technology use are related to the reasons why the oldest old are using tech, the researchers found.

Those using technology mainly to connect with family and friends reported greater life satisfaction, less loneliness, and higher goal attainment. But using tech mainly to learn new information was linked to better physical health, namely better subjective health and fewer functional limitations.

“This may be because when people report using ICT to learn new information, they are doing so to learn about or better manage their health,” the study authors wrote. “In contrast, using ICT to connect with others may be done to garner social support.”

The study did have certain limitations, including that it did not show that technology itself was causing these improvements in mental and physical well-being, only that it is correlated. Future work might also compare these findings in the oldest old with younger age groups, and assess the relationship between the frequency and type of tech use with improvements in well-being.

Home health applications

Technology can be a low-cost way to “offset significant challenges to well-being encountered in the latest stage of life,” the study authors concluded. This supports the efforts of many home health providers to bring tech to their clients, whether it be helping people connect with family members across the country or utilizing programs to stimulate cognitive engagement.

One practical takeaway for those working with the “oldest old” might be to focus more on why they want to engage with technology, Sims said.

“A lot of previous research examines how often older people use technology but less research focuses on what really motivates them to use it and how aligning the use of certain types of technologies with their goals might lead to higher well-being,” she said. “If you emphasize how technology can provide myriad connections to the ones we love, it may be more appealing, particularly as people get older.”

Furthermore, the findings might suggest how to improve training seniors to use new technologies.

“What we don’t look at in our study, but would be interesting to investigate, is the possibility that reminding older adults about their motivations could reduce frustration and increase perseverance when trying to learn how to use a new technology,” Sims said.

Still, it’s important to note that the findings do not suggest technology can replace other types of activities—such as spending face-to-face time with loved ones, or getting outside to exercise—that predict quality of life and longevity, she emphasized.

“Rather, [technology] can serve as a supplement, particularly for those who may have limited opportunities to be socially engaged in person,” Sims said.

Written by Tim Mullaney

Photo Credit: “Toshiba Satellite L40 Laptop” by Cheon Fong Liew, CC BY SA 2.0