Old School, Meet New School: Seniors Tackle Social Networks

iPad classes offered by Older Adults Technology Services.
Source: Older Adults Technology Services

Call them the silver foxes of Facebook: seniors are using social media sites in growing numbers.

To meet the demand of older folks who want to get their tweet on, there's an increase in the number of classes being offered. Various organizations are training seniors how to share, search and connect in the social realm.

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"Social media is the fastest growing area of new applications for older adults using technology," said Tom Kamber, the executive director for a New York City based non-profit called Older Adults Technology Services (OATS).

"For us, it's the number one thing people are asking us for," he said. "It's the most requested class that we offer."

Kamber adds that for the over 60 set, social networking has become a badge of status in an age where anybody who's anybody is posting with reckless abandon.

"For many older adults, social media represents the gold standard for successful use of technology," he said. "An older adult who is on Facebook and Twitter and who can used LinkedIn has made it, so to speak. It represents a successful adopter of technology."

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The adoption of social networking is part of a broad push seniors are making to the web. For the first time, more than half of adults 65 or older are going online, according to a report published last year by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project.

The number of seniors using social media has grown significantly during recent years, with one-third of internet users ages 65 or older using a social networking site like Facebook, according to the same report.

"It's something we have a lot of demand for, we've been doing a ton of training over the last two years and [we] are ramping it up even more," said Tammy Gordon, the vice president of social communication at AARP.

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Gordon said that AARP hosted its first Facebook 101 class in 2010. Much to their surprise, the class room filled up to the point where it was standing room only.

But unlike young adults who use Facebook to kill time or find potential dates, seniors are using social media to empower themselves, Kamber said.

"Older adults are interested in contributing to society around them," Kamber said. "What we are finding is they come to us and they want to contribute to their own well-being and the society around them. Many are looking for work or to volunteer and social media tools are critical to that kind of activity."

One class OATS offers is focused on job searching in the Digital Age. Older Internet users learn how to use social media to get their resumes out and build networks.

The organization also offers a course called "Social Networking in the Digital Age", which teaches participants how to use Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. It's a five week course with 10 sessions, where the students learn how to navigate the sites by hands-on application.

"They don't want to study something in the abstract. They are very practical," Kamber said.

For its part, the AARP is also focusing a lot on how seniors can use the social platforms to engage with their community, according to Gordon.

It's not just about following, but participating and communicating. AARP is working to teach older adults that social media can be used to create "interest based connections" with people.

Wanda Withers, a 65-year-old student in the job searching class offered by OATS, said she is taking the course to learn how to connect with people. She is interested in digitally marketing an accessory line she wants to launch.

Withers was in the fashion industry for 20 years, but over the last ten years has mostly cared for her elderly mother. Now, Withers is learning how to publicize her products on social platforms like Facebook.

"Before taking the classes, the reality looked like my being able to re-establish myself was not there...I was not able to tap into what was necessary." Withers said. "Now, I believe I have the capability of establishing a line."

Using social media, though, may do more for seniors than just help them find jobs and connect with society. Research suggests social media may actually benefit seniors health.

Using social media sites to interact with other people may actually boost seniors' cognitive abilities, according to a recent study by researchers at the University of Arizona.

There is an added benefit. Maintaining relationships in their twilight years can be very important to a senior's heath, OATS's Kamber said.

"As people get older and pass away or move away, seniors can become socially isolated. It's been linked to morbidity and illness and lower life expectancy," he said. "Older adults have to keep social networks strong for their wellness. So using social media prolongs life expectancy."

For Withers, learning more about social media and technology has boosted her confidence and made relaunching her career a feasible reality.

"When you have been in the industry for awhile and deal with young people, they get the technology, but when you are a senior and you are looked at by other generations and they dont understand your lack of understanding it can be a little bit depressing," Withers said.

"But now I feel a definite sense of significance and I feel like I've been revalued," she added.

Older adults looking to learn more about social media can contact their local AARP organization to find out what classes are being offered in their area.

If AARP isn't hosting training in their area, Gordon said they can often connect people with another program from a local community college, senior center or online course.