Why Seniors are Still Lagging in Use of Internet Health Resources


Senior Citizens and Online Health Resources

As Internet use increases across all demographics, so does its use as a health resource. From researching symptoms and side-effects to chatting with doctors online, and even ordering prescriptions, the Internet puts users in control of their healthcare more than ever before in history. Still, one vital demographic lags behind the rest in terms of using the Web as a resource for health. Seniors in the developed world struggle with adopting Internet practices that would benefit their health, despite having the most health-related concerns. Three main overlapping issues explain why this discrepancy in use between younger generations and older seniors exists: age, education, and income.

The Studies

In one study by Pew Research Center, researchers divided seniors into four groups based on age. The 65-69 group used the Internet the most out of the four, with the group comprised of 80+ year-olds using internet the least. Though cliche, older generations feel more apprehensive about change than younger generations, making them less likely to adopt technological innovations in the first place. Other age-related factors come into play, too, though. Physical barriers such as poor eyesight, limited mobility, and loss of dexterity make the Internet inaccessible to older seniors. Pew found that, in addition to the physical barriers, older seniors remain skeptical about the Internet’s benefit to their lives and, since they were not raised with Internet, many of them would need to learn how to use it first, and do not have the resources for such a Herculean task.

Here, education and age overlap. As college becomes more ubiquitous, the younger a senior citizen is, the more likely they are to have pursued higher education in their youth. In addition, those born later or those who attended college may have been introduced to earlier technologies that would help them understand the Internet better in later life. According to a 2016 report by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), seniors who have graduated from college consulted the Internet seven times more frequently than those who had not.

Vital Role

Internet and health literacy factor into why education plays such a vital role in how much seniors use the Internet. Internet literacy involves knowing how to search for information, navigating sources, and determining source credibility. If a senior feels uncomfortable navigating the Internet, they will not utilize it for something as serious as their health. Health literacy presents an even greater obstacle, as it requires understanding medical terminology, practices, and care instructions. Since most health-related commercial websites use language above the recommended sixth-to-eighth grade reading levels, lack of health literacy, or even the ability to read in general, prevents seniors from utilizing the Internet for health-related inquiries. More educated seniors face less challenges when engaging with health-related literature on the Internet due to having the education needed to understand the language used and the science behind it.

Income represents the final factor that causes seniors to lag behind in health-related Internet use. This overlaps with age and education, as less education means less income, and vise-versa, and because older seniors rely on social security since they can no longer work. The main reason income plays such a vital role in this discrepancy can be found in the obvious — those living in poverty cannot always afford a computer or Internet. A senior citizen cannot grow comfortable enough with Internet literacy if they do not possess consistent access to the Internet. Poverty also results in poorer health, both due to environmental factors and lack of healthcare. As discussed previously, untreated age-related health conditions contribute to the inaccessibility of the Internet. Poverty, age, and health also prevent seniors from visiting local libraries to access the Internet if they have no computers at home.

While seniors still lag behind, the data still shows that they have made significant gains in recent years. A report in The Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences indicates that from 2003 to 2011, seniors increased their health-related online uses significantly in two areas: “seeking health information online and communicating with doctors online.” Less significant increases were made in connecting to others with similar health problems and buying medicine online. Younger, healthier, and better-educated seniors reported more similar gains to younger adults, indicating that age is not the primary factor in this discrepancy, but compounds on the other factors.

The Politics

One expert believes the solution lies in politics. If the government subsidized the Internet, ensuring that even poor people have access, then the elderly would begin to use the Internet. This solution fails to address the other issues related to age and education, though. Another solution that addresses all issues may be an intervention model, in which seniors are provided with regular training classes to boost their confidence in their abilities to use the Internet effectively. While this method seems promising, implementing it across the developed world proves difficult. As the next generations replace the older one, this problem may become obsolete before an effective solution can be found.

For those that learn to use the Internet as a health-related resource, the benefits outweigh any obstacle they face. The elderly comprise the modern world’s most vulnerable demographic regarding healthcare. If the elderly could gain agency over their healthcare through online research, e-consultations, and medicine shopping, their health would improve significantly. For this reason, providing seniors with the resources they need to utilize the Internet for this purpose should be a primary goal for modern society.

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