“Hello?”: The elderly and communication in the Age of Millennials

The elderly and communication in the Age of MillennialsTechnology is so pervasive in our lives today that it almost seems impossible to function without it. We are so used to texting, Skyping, Facebook messaging, and other technologically-advanced ways to communicate that we seem to have forgotten how life was without it—well, many of us have forgotten. Baby boomers have not. They still remember the days when face-to-face communication was the only way to communicate. Many of them do not understand technology and have no desire to understand it.

However, recently there has been an increase in technology use by the baby boomer generation. This increase of use is primarily because of the desire to speak with children and grandchildren more frequently. Studies show that over 20 percent of grandparents use technology regularly to communicate with their families. Although most grandparents still communicate with their grandchildren by phone, evidence suggests that a growing number of them – baby boomers, especially – are turning to online tools to connect. Given the constraints of distance and time – a majority of boomer grandparents are still working and many of them live hundreds of miles from their grandchildren – technology is often the only way to stay connected to family, and they are increasingly comfortable using it.

It’s interesting to see the preferences for communication tools based on age. The statistics below are from a 2014 Gallup poll – the most recent general survey of this kind available:

  • Texting is the most frequently used form of communication among Americans younger than 50. Texting drops off significantly after age 50, and is used infrequently among those aged 65 and older.
  • Use of cellphones and email to communicate is highest among the youngest age group, with little dropoff among those 30 to 64, and is lowest among those aged 65 and older. Still, despite seniors’ relatively infrequent use of cellphones and email, both are essentially tied with landline phone use as the most frequently used method of communication even in this oldest age group.
  • The use of social media to communicate is in the top four among those aged 18 to 29, but its use drops off significantly among those 30 or older.
  • Few Americans of any age report using Twitter frequently, although its use is higher among the younger group. Three percent or less of those aged 30 and older report using Twitter a lot, including virtually no Americans aged 65 and older (the current president excepted).
  • The use of home landline phones shows a different pattern by age than the other communication methods: it is low across all age groups, albeit slightly higher among those 65 and older.

For older adults, staying in touch with family members is one of the main motivations for using social media and that’s especially true for adults ages 50 to 64. Still, many boomer grandparents concede that technology is no substitute for actually being there.

If you’re a Millennial or Gen-X care-giver, it’s important to be sensitive to how the senior in your care prefers to communicate. Be willing to stop texting and start calling if that’s what they’re most comfortable with. If you’re a family member struggling with how to stay in touch with your elderly parent or grandparent, remember to be empathetic and look at the situation through their eyes. Do they live alone? Are they unable to get out of the house easily? If so, consider regularly taking some time to pay a real visit – Skype and Facebook video is no substitute for the human presence.

The really important thing is to communicate regularly, regardless of the method of communication. Even better, combine methods depending on convenience and familiarity with technology. Supplement those grandparent/grandchild Skype chats with periodic physical visits to keep the relationship active on all levels. The value is immeasurable.

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