engineering and technologyNewssocial sciences

Research links internet surfing to healthy aging

Parents often discuss screen time for children, but what about the elderly? Screen time could benefit them. Credit: Anete Toming
Parents often discuss screen time for children, but what about the elderly? Screen time could benefit them. Credit: Anete Toming

Digital skills can improve the lives of older people, but not everyone has access to e-literacy. 

In Estonia, where most tasks can be completed online, including scheduling doctor’s appointments, starting a company, or voting in elections, digitalization has streamlined life for many, eliminating queues and hassle. However, this digital shift can lead to isolation for those lacking internet usage skills.

Surprisingly, a significant portion of Estonians aged 65 to 74, about one-third, do not use the internet. Even more striking, most individuals over 75 have never used a computer, according to the 2023 Estonian Human Development Report.

The primary obstacle preventing older adults from accessing the internet in Estonia and across Europe is not the absence of resources but rather the lack of digital skills, explained Tiina Tambaum, co-author of the paper “Use of Digital Tools, Digital Skills, and Mental Well-being” in the Estonian Human Development Report, a researcher and lecturer at Tallinn University Haapsalu College

The implications of this digital divide are concerning. Tambaum warns that if older generations do not use the internet, it could deepen the divide between age groups. “It could lead to different generations not taking each other seriously,” she said. “It’s like they would live in two different worlds.”

Tambaum has dedicated decades to studying healthy aging. She emphasizes that feeling included in society, valued, and having a sense of purpose is essential for healthy aging. According to her research, using digital tools and having access to acquiring necessary skills is not merely an activity but is closely tied to mental well-being.

Healthy aging, as defined by the World Health Organization, is about creating environments and opportunities to continue engaging in activities they value. Healthy aging doesn’t mean you have to be free from disease. It has more to do with maintaining meaningful relationships, contributing to society, staying mobile, and continuing learning and development.

One of the oldest populations

Estonia is home to one of the oldest populations globally, with one in five individuals now aged 65 or older. Projections suggest that by 2050, a third of the population will fall into this age bracket. Adapting to these demographic shifts is crucial. Tambaum’s research demonstrates that digital skills can mitigate feelings of loneliness and depression among the elderly.

Tambaum has pioneered innovative approaches to promote healthy aging in response to these challenges. She emphasizes the importance of training knowledgeable but non-professional tutors to teach digital skills to the elderly and exploring alternative methods, such as phone calls, to foster meaningful connections. “We all need fulfilling conversations!” Tambaum said. Her experiments during the COVID-19 lockdown revealed the power of stimulating conversations in combating loneliness and depression among older adults.

“I’ve seen that it’s possible to stimulate all the senses with a simple phone call,” she said. The content of the phone call could be about long-lived life. The participants were required to cover topics that create spontaneous memory pictures, such as asking about their neighbors throughout their lives. Over two and a half years, Tambaum has collected various stimulating topics. They must make sense of the life lived and create connections to the current time.

Ultimately, Tambaum envisions a society that prioritizes the needs of the elderly. “If life were built according to the needs of the elderly, everyone would enjoy it,” Tambaum is convinced.

Written by: Marian MänniThis article was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.

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