The Internet can save you money, increase your confidence and improve your health

Chris Hawkins Written by Chris Hawkins
SeniorLiving.Org Expert on Senior Care & Assisted Living

Are you still on the fence about the Internet? Don’t be. Embrace it. It’s educational. It’s fun. It will save you money. It’s easier than driving a car. And it may just help you live longer.

OLDER ADULTS EMBRACING TECHNOLOGY

It’s taken a little time, but older adults are becoming more connected every year. Chances are high that your friends are regularly online, texting and looking at restaurant reviews on their smart phones.

One study, the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, found that seniors are well-wired when it comes to technology.

  • 85% of older boomers (57-65) have a cell phone; 61% of this group has a desk top computer and 49% have a laptop.

  • 76% of the silent generation (66-74) have a cell phone; 54% have a desk top computer and 39% have a laptop.

  • 63% of the GI generation (75+) have a cell phone; 31% have a desk top and 20% have a laptop.

In addition, another survey found that those 65 and older “are among the least likely groups to go online, but once online, they are enthusiastic emailers and information searchers.” Does this sound like you?

Once adopted, using email and the Internet becomes as much a part of your day as walking to the mailbox.

ACCORDING TO SENIORS, BEING CONNECTED IS IMPORTANT

The National Council on Aging’s (NCOA) 2013 Aging Survey revealed that 40% of seniors feel that staying connected with family and friends is most important to maintaining a high quality of life. An important means of staying connected is through the use of technology: phone, texting, email, etc.

The study found that 83% of seniors said it was important for seniors to use technology. The respondents said that technology allows them to 1) keep up with the world 2) learn new things, and 3) stay mentally sharp.

BENEFITS OF BEING CONNECTED

Perhaps one of the biggest but immeasurable benefits of being connected is the freedom and excitement of discovery that the Internet provides.

Remember riding your bike as a kid? And the liberation that exploring the world around you brought. Just those two wheels, your legs, and your curiosity could take you to new and interesting places even if these places were the next neighborhood over.

The Internet can evoke some of those same feelings. It can also provide you with other benefits.

  • Feeling less isolated and more connected to the outside world

  • Becoming closer to family and friends through communication (email, Skype, chat, etc.)

  • Becoming more connected to younger generations (kids, grandkids) i.e. being able to talk about and use technology

  • Becoming more independent

  • Increased self-confidence and self-esteem learning a new skill

  • Enhanced mental health

  • Reduced feeling of loneliness

  • Facilitates and improves knowledge in one’s interests and hobbies

  • Improves organization with calendars and reminders (social events, doctor’s appointments, medication reminders, et al)

  • Therapy via support groups/chat rooms for those suffering from illness

  • Saves money a number of ways, e.g. by allowing easy comparison shopping to find the best value.

SOCIAL CONNECTIONS ARE IMPORTANT TO YOUR HEALTH

The mail is one way to connect with people and the outside world. Email, texting, and Skyping are other ways. Older adults don’t often get the kind of social connections that keep them healthy. And as these studies report, remaining social is an important component to healthy living.  

A Drexel University study found that “social connections may help to control disease risks and reduce mortality in older adults, and that lack of social connections carries a risk of mortality similar to that of diabetes mellitus.”

Another study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said that both social isolation and loneliness are associated with increased mortality. Social isolation is associated with:

  • Chronic lung disease
  • Arthritis

  • Impaired mobility

  • Depressive symptoms

The study found that loneliness was more common in women, the elderly, the less educated and those with lower income.

Many seniors aren’t as active socially as they once were. Some are simply isolated from family and friends by geography or physical disability. Others may not have the resources (money, car, technology) to stay in touch with loved ones.

Though technology can’t take the place of actual face-to-face connections, it can provide a relatively low-cost way to stay connected.

THE INTERNET ANSWERS HEALTH QUESTIONS

My left hand goes numb when I sit at my desk typing for extended periods. Why is that? And what can I do about it? A quick Google search gave me the probable diagnosis and self-treatment. Problem solved. No doctor’s visit.

It’s not always that easy, but the Internet is a great place to start to figure out what ails you, especially as the quality of online “symptom checkers” increase.

In fact, 35% of U.S. adults use the Internet to figure out a medical condition, according to a Pew Health Online 2013 survey. Using online resources helped a number of people seek the care they needed. Among some of the findings are:


  • 46% said the medical information they found online led them to think they needed medical attention.

  • 38% said it was something they could take care of at home.

  • 41% of online diagnosers said a medical professional confirmed their diagnosis.

An online diagnosis won’t replace an actual visit to your doctor. But before setting up that appointment, Googling the pain in your knee may save you time, expense, and a lot worry. The information you find may make the difference between thinking the possible (knee cancer!) versus knowing the probable (tendinitis).

HOW THE INTERNET SAVES YOU MONEY

If you’re enjoying retirement, you likely put more value on money than on your time. Here are just a few of the ways using the Internet can save you money:


  • Comparison shop to save money on big ticket items. You have more buying options online than you would possibly have in your area. This also saves you money in gas, driving around to different stores.
  • Save money on repairs and upgrades. If you are at least curious, you can often find step-by-step instructions for diagnosing all kinds of home and auto repairs. You’re A.C. stopped working? Maybe it’s just replacing the battery in your thermostat, which saves you a service call.
  • Watch movies, documentaries, sports, and TV shows online for a fraction of the cost of cable.
  • Buy gifts online and use the free shipping offered by many retailers, saving you money in postage and gas.
  • Online banking, including bill pay can save you money on stamps and late fees. Plus, you’ll be saving a tree or at least a bush.
  • Use coupons sites to save money on groceries.
  • Use travel sites to find the best deals on airfare, hotels, car rental and tour packages.
  • Read books online at no cost using your library and other free services.
  • Buy prescription drugs cheaper online and have them delivered.

BARRIERS FOR SENIORS USING TECHNOLOGY

The NCOA survey also indicated that among the barriers for seniors using technology was not understanding “how to use it” and cost. Let’s look at the cost of devices first, then Internet service.

Here are your options for connecting to the Internet, which will allow you to send email, surf the Net, read books, watch movies, Skype and more. This will be your largest initial out-of-pocket expense.

HOW TO CONNECT?

How you get online depends on you. What are your needs? Something portable? Inexpensive? Easy-to-read? Large screen? DVD player? Your options are many so you should be able to find just the right device. And you may find you want more than one.

Let’s look at some examples.

TABLET PC: For as little as $69, you can score one of these super-compact, portable devices that are about the size of a National Geographic, yet allow you to read email, surf the web, read e-books, play games, watch videos, and listen to music among other functions.

Pros: Use them anywhere: in bed, at the coffee shop, on the plane, by the pool. Touch-screens allow you to easily change the size of the font, type on-screen, and scroll through web pages with a finger flick. Keeping in touch with family and friends easily via email, instant messaging, and video. Good battery life.

Cons: Storage capacity is usually limited and they don’t have the functionality of a laptop or desktop. Some don’t come with USB port to allow for transferring files or plugging in devices such as cameras.

Price: Start at about $69 and go up to over $700 for an iPad with retina display.

NETBOOK: These mini-laptops are more feature rich than tablet PCs, but they are also not as compact. The usually come in screen sizes of 8” or 10” and weigh just a few pounds.

Pros: Netbooks have full Microsoft operating systems that allow you perform the same operations as you would on laptop or desktop. Relatively small and lightweight. Decent storage capacity for pictures, music, e-books, etc. Inexpensive compared to laptops.

Cons: Small keyboard may be tough to type on. Smaller screen may be hard to view for some. No CD or DVD drive.

Price: Netbooks start at around $200.

LAPTOP: These offer a nice compromise between the non-portable desktop and the smaller, less functional netbook or tablet. Most of what you can do on a desktop you can do on a laptop. Screen sizes range from 13” to 20”.

Pros: Versatile and portable. Surf and watch movies in bed. Take just about anywhere though some can get a little heavy depending on the size.

Cons: Not as portable and lightweight as a tablet or netbook. Screen size not as big as desktop options. Can be expensive depending on brand and features.

Price: Laptops start at around $220.

DESKTOP: Desktops used to take up a lot of space with their big, clunky monitors and CPU towers. Not anymore. You can by an all-in-one where everything—monitor, hard drive, CD/DVD and all other components—are neatly tucked into one unit. So it’s just the monitor, keyboard and mouse sitting on your desk.

Pros: Take up minimal desk space compared to traditional desktops. Large, easy-to-read monitors—usually 23”. Regular keyboards are easy to type on. Fast processors, lots of space for pictures, music and e-books. A good way to watch movies and DVDs.

Cons: Not portable. Considerably more expensive than other options.

Price: All-in-one desktops start at around $550.

SMART PHONE: Not the best way to surf the Net because of their size, but certainly an option.

Pros: Small and very portable. Can pull double duty as your phone and Internet device. Handy apps navigation, games, banking, etc. With some cell plans, you can connect another device (laptop, tablet, etc.) to the Internet using your phone’s signal. This would negate the need for separate Internet service. Read more about phone options here.

Cons: Small size screen. Small keyboard making it difficult to type. Less storage space. Less functionality.

Price: If you sign a contract with some cell phone companies, you may be able to receive a free smart phone. Otherwise, they start at around $60.

E-BOOK (KINDLE/NOOK ET AL): These devices are similar in size to tablets and are primarily designed to display e-books from Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other e-book sources. Most can also connect to the Internet allowing email, surfing, movie watching and more.

Pros: Screens designed to be viewed in a variety of light conditions from dark rooms to the bright outdoors. Ability to enlarge the font. Portability. Carry an entire library on one device. E-books are cheaper than regular books. USB ports allow other devices.

Cons: Screens aren’t as crisp as iPad and other tablets.

Price: Kindle Fire (Amazon) is $159. Nook HD (B&N) is $150.

INTERNET

The average cost of high speed Internet is $42 a month. This could be cost prohibitive for some low-income seniors. If this is you, consider a trade-off. For example, if you have cable TV, consider getting rid of it and using the cheaper alternatives that the Internet provides such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.

You can read more about options other than cable in “3 Ways Seniors Can Save Money Right Now” . We’ll also show other ways you can save money and potentially off-set the cost of Internet service.

Another option is to split the cost of service with a neighbor, especially if you live in an apartment complex where a wireless signal is strong. Even if you live in a house, your neighbor’s signal will likely reach you.

Also, think of the Internet as more than just a technical connection. Think of it as a portal to endless education and entertainment. You can:

  • Read newspapers

  • Take free classes from MIT

  • Participate in book discussions

  • Personal banking

  • Monitor investments

  • Watch the news, sports, movies,

  • Read e-books

  • Learn how to repair just about anything

  • Learn about your health

  • Order goods and services

  • Have groceries delivered to your door

  • Make dinner reservations

  • Buy movie tickets

  • Refill prescriptions

  • Have doctors monitor your health

  • Talk to friends and family over video

  • Identify bird calls

FREE WAYS TO COMMUNICATE

Email: Set up a free account with a webmail service such as Yahoo!, Outlook (formerly Hotmail) or Gmail. You’ll immediately be able to email friends and family in addition to receiving plenty of unwanted junk mail aka spam.

Skype: Do you Skype? Yes, Skype has made into the Oxford Dictionary as a verb. About 600 million people are registered users of the video and instant messaging service. And why not. It’s free.

You can connect on video (or instant messaging) with anyone else who also uses Skype. This makes seeing and hearing kids, grandkids, and friends easy.

Facebook: Keep up with friends, kids, and grandkids with the gold standard in online social networking. You can share photos, send messages, chat instantly, get news feeds and basically be a voyeur into the lives of people you know.

Texting: Sending short electronic messages from your phone is not simply the communication domain of teenage girls. Texting is a quick, useful way to communicate any number of messages from “What did I need to pick up for dinner?” to “Love you, be home at 3:30,” to “We’re enjoying a beautiful day at the beach (with attached picture). You?” Working, Mom.

*Note: texting plans vary from “bundled” to paying per text.

PICK AND CHOOSE WHAT YOU USE

Just because you use the Internet doesn’t mean you also have to carry a smart phone, text, Skype or Tweet. You may find email is the only way you like to communicate. Maybe it’s through Facebook. Or maybe a combination.

Some people are “texters” and some couldn’t be bothered. You quickly learn who in your life uses what.

My Dad, for instance, was an early adopter of computers, and now spends most of his day online. And though he owns a cell phone (for my Mom to “keep track of him”), he rarely carries it, doesn’t know how to use voice mail and certainly doesn’t text, unlike my Mom who has a smart phone and likes to text.

With so many free applications, it’s easy to give something a try and drop it if you’re not comfortable with it.

LEARNING TO USE TECHNOLOGY

One of the biggest hurdles for seniors embracing technology is the how-to. The good news is that using a computer is easier than programming a VCR. Remember those things? Ok, bad example.

How about easier than driving a car, preparing a dinner, balancing a checkbook, or any other daily task. Seriously. Learning to use a computer is as easy as any of your daily tasks.

And though the pace of technology—the constant release of new devices, new applications, etc.—is sometimes dizzying, usability becomes easier every year. Product developers want their products to be intuitive and out-of-the-box easy.

If you’re not fortunate enough to have a child, grandkid, friend or other relative teach you the basics of computing, you’re in luck. There are a number of options.

  • Your local Area Agency on Aging can direct you to a nearby senior center offering computer classes.

  • Public libraries offer computer classes and/or assistance from library staff.

  • Seniornet.org has a listing of computer classes by location.

  • Community and junior colleges

  • In Google, type computer classes for seniors, and you’ll find all kinds of online classes

STAYING SAFE ONLINE

Seniors can be particularly vulnerable online for several reasons. They are generally—though not always—more trusting. Unless they’ve been “connected” online for years, they are less likely to be familiar with all of the online scams out there. And seniors may not be as up-to-date with security software for their computers, leaving them more prone to attack from viruses and the like.

Knowing all this, criminals do target older adults. And knowing this, if you exercise some common sense, you’ll be just find online. Here are a few basic tips to remember:

  • Never respond to email or other online requests for personal or financial information, even if the email looks “official” and even though it may look like an email from an institution you do business with. These are phishing scams.

  • Don’t click on links within emails from someone you don’t know.

  • Don’t open attachments from email addresses you don’t know. They could contain viruses.

  • Don’t fall for the classic Nigerian email scam that goes something like this: “My wife and I won the Euro Millions Lottery and decided to donate 1.5 million British pounds to 4 individuals as part of our own charity.” They go on to ask you for banking and personal information if you take the bait.

  • If you’re ever in doubt about the legitimacy of an email, do a quick Google search. You’re likely not the first person to run across the “offer.”

  • Lastly, remember the golden rule: if it sounds too good to be true, it is….

For even more tips on how to avoid being bamboozled, visit the FBI’s Internet Fraud page.

JUST DON’T OVERDO IT

To be sure, there is garbage online. It takes some effort to wade through it all depending on what you’re looking for. And spending time on the Internet can take time away from real person-to-person socialization and other daily routines if you let it.

Anything done in excess is usually not good for you. Just don’t let your surfing time interrupt your exercise, social calls, and other activities that keep you healthy and sane.

From increase social connections to keeping your mind sharp to saving money, the Internet can change your life for the better.

 


Updated: Aug 30, 2013

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