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Social seniors: Defying loneliness in the era of COVID-19

My father, Bill, is one of the most active social media users I know.

Just a few months shy of his 92nd birthday, he is sharp as a tack, incredibly healthy, an avid traveler, and has a zest for life that is unrivaled by people half his age. He brings that unquenchable enthusiasm to his social media world, engaging with a broad spectrum of family and friends daily. In fact, at the start of the year, we Facebooked and Tweeted our way through Egypt – with my Dad carefully crafting and curating our posts along the journey.

I have always been fascinated by the correlation between my dad’s online social connectivity and his outlook on life and overall health and well-being. While Bill certainly isn’t your typical nonagenarian, there’s much we can learn from his use of social media and the ways it has enriched his life – especially when so many his age are battling loneliness and its devastating effects. Just three years ago, the U.S. Surgeon General declared loneliness and social isolation among the world’s older adult population a “loneliness epidemic.” And that was before a global pandemic turned the world upside-down.

According to a June survey from the University of Michigan, the pandemic has doubled loneliness among older adults. With mounting stay-at-home orders, many seniors have been robbed of traditional ways of connecting and find themselves increasingly isolated. Club and dining hall programs, exercise classes, group games and social activities have all been placed on indefinite hold. For better or worse, social media is the one avenue that has powered connectivity throughout the crisis for older adults. And for my dad and his social senior counterparts, the reviews are positive.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the game for social media and the way we build community. We’ve seen TikTok emerge as one of the top entertainment platforms, only to be overtaken by Zoom – a feat that would have seemed unimaginable just months ago. Of course, my dad has been right there, participating in virtual Rotary Club meetings, online Sunday School and our newly established family tradition – the Saturday night Zoom club.

Not surprisingly, research shows that social video tools are having the most favorable impact on connectivity amongst seniors. The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry recently published a study of older adults that found “users of video chat had approximately half the probability of depressive symptoms at two-year follow-up compared to non-users and users of email, social media, and instant messaging.”

Fortunately, Bill has always been laser focused on exercising his mind which includes being an early adopter of technology (it helps that he has three tech-savvy kids). He often speaks of the need to learn and grow at any age, and to never stand still and always move forward. Social media has created an avenue for him to do just that.

What connects my dad to his followers is the level of care he brings to his social engagement. He often makes profound observations that engage his followers in unexpected ways. He studies expressions, looks for hidden details, and poetically remarks about the beauty he sees in the posts he reads. He offers words of hope and encouragement to build people up and shares just the right emoji for that special occasion – from birthdays and babies, to new homes and career moves. He’s also the first to wish you a very happy Facebook birthday.

Only time will tell how we weather this unpresented pandemic and the role that technology will play in diminishing or exacerbating loneliness. What I do know for sure is that social media is here to stay, and the joy and connectedness that my father experiences through it might just hold the key to its highest and best use.

Heather Rim is Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing & Communications Officer at AECOM. A USC graduate, Heather is a member of the USC Alumni Association Board of Governors, the Arthur W. Page Society, and the USC Annenberg Center for PR Board of Advisors.