Making our elderly smartphone-friendly

Making our elderly smartphone-friendly

Our population is ageing with the proportion of elderly aged 60+ projected to reach about 20% by 2050, from 8.4% as per 2011 census. Most elderly suffer social isolation with negative consequences on mental health, leading to declining quality of life. But those who remain employed or indulge in clearly defined hobbies will not get affected.

Social isolation or loneliness can cause depression, is a risk factor for dementia, and can exacerbate physical illnesses. That the British government appointed a minister to deal with loneliness suggests the gravity of the societal problem. 

One way to enhance social life is by encouraging the use of smartphones in the contemporary world of technological revolution. While the health department is concerned over excess use, addiction, associated depression and anxiety among youth, including rural college students, it is still a worthy option for the elderly.

At a recent geriatric psychiatry meeting at NIMHANS, an interactive session by Mumbai-based psychiatrist Alka Subramanyam on her experiences with smartphone use in elderly patients suggested that its usage could help regain autonomy, increase opportunities to remain connected with friends and family members, thus addressing the problem of loneliness.

A smartphone is essentially a handheld telephonic device with touchscreen interface, that enables the use of internet allowing web browsing. But with advancing technology, phones are becoming smarter and can now work on voice commands with interactive features. Every other day, new models of smartphones with updated features are pitched through aggressive marketing to attract the public, with telecom operators also shelling out several offers on call and data packages.

Though it has become life’s basic need, what with government schemes and services also going digital, many people still struggle to operate it. Unlike the youth, whose curiosity and hunger for innovation help them learn by trial and error, the elderly end up frustrated as staying motivated to learn new things is a demanding task at that age and several failed attempts make them give up early.

Post-retirement migration to a new neighbourhood, far from colleagues or friends, lack of scheduled daily activities and mobility issues also contribute to declining social life. Elderly housewives also change their schedule to suit their retired husbands. Some elders may have a spouse with illness or few may have lost them early.

Changes leading to a nuclear family structure due to economic migration of sons or daughters could also result in a depleted support system. It is also possible that some elderly couple or single parents may prefer to live independently to self-manage the pace of daily life, but may choose to live close to their sons or daughters. Various illnesses, taking multiple medications, frequent trips to hospitals or diagnostic centres and the feeling of getting old may force them to cut down on physical activity, too.

Imparting training

While smartphones are mainly for communication, they are also used for paying bills, buying commodities, watching news and movies, listening to music, to gain information etc. Communication at an individual level or through social media groups helps stay connected with family and friends, and shared day to day events, dulling the feelings of being alone or left out. For some, it may give a sense of reassurance knowing the welfare of their family members.

Elderly people need training to understand the language, function and technique of using smartphones, though some get assistance from their grandchildren. But only a few, including the Nightingales Trust for the elderly, conduct such training workshops. The initial hiccups of getting a suitable smartphone, adapting to its functions, and staying motivated to learn new information may be overcome gradually by learning in peer groups or workshops.

On the other extreme, excessive use of smartphones leading to greater dependency and replacement of physical activity will also hamper mental health. Smartphone addiction is associated with depression and anxiety. People’s behaviour on social media reflects their mood and, for caregivers, this may provide an early hint of memory decline.

Interactions through smartphones are all virtual and never a complete substitute for physical meeting. So, a need-based and organised use of smartphones, ensuring that its potential benefits outweigh hazards, is certainly recommended for the elderly. There is also a need for more elder-friendly devices and functions, especially for individuals with compromised vision and hearing.

(The writer is consultant psychiatrist and ad-hoc faculty in Geriatric Psychiatry, NIMHANS, Bengaluru)

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