If you're reading this article, it means that you are probably relatively familiar with the Internet and at least one or two types of social media. And, though you may not consider yourself Internet savvy, you are part of a growing trend of adults who use social media websites to say in touch with their family and friends.
According to a recent study by Pew Internet, during the years 2009 and 2010, the number of people over the age of 50 who used social networking sites jumped by 88 percent. Currently, there are more than 50 million American boomers on Facebook alone.
Social media isn't limited to just the well-known sites like Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace. Online support groups, forums, and communities (like AgingCare.com), are all encompassed under the umbrella term "social media."
Where caregivers can be themselves
Caregivers in particular, appear to consume a vast amount of social media resources.
An investigation conducted by the research and consulting firms, Age Lessons and comScore, indicates that caregivers spend 150 minutes a month on social media sites. They also do far more online exploring than the average person, looking at 70 percent more pages than most people.
What draws caregivers to social media? How can this modern phenomenon help people as they take care of elderly loved ones?
Cat Koehler, social media advocate for Home Instead Senior care says that social media is so appealing to caregivers because it widens their universe, enabling them to interact with people who share their cares and concerns. And, she says that being online lowers people's inhibitions, allowing caregivers a place to say what they really mean without fear of angering someone or hurting their feelings.
Why sharing may help your caring
Socialization has always been humanity's calling card—all animals communicate, but no other species has such a compelling need to socialize as we do. People will share anything and everything with one another: stories, experiences, gossip, recipes, the list goes on.
"Connection is like vitamin C—it's the thing that keeps people young and healthy."
These are the words of Vicki Rackner, M.D., author of, Caregiving without Regrets: 3 Steps to Avoid Burnout and Manage Disappointment, Guilt and Anger. Unfortunately, caregiving is so time-consuming that people often find themselves isolated and disconnected from even their closest confidants.
Rackner believes that social media is a great way for caregivers to remedy this situation. Social networking sites can help a caregiver maintain their relationships with their family and friends, while forging new alliances with their peers who are taking care of elderly loved ones of their own.
According to geriatric care manager and author of the book, Eldercare Made Easier, Marion Somers, Ph.D., loneliness is an emotion universally felt by caregivers. She says no one, not even the CEOs she's met during her nation-wide seminars, is immune from feeling as though they are alone in their caregiving journey.
For Somers, social media's greatest gift lies in its ability to show caregivers that they are not alone.
She says that it's invaluable for caregivers to feel as though they're not "reinventing the wheel," they need to know that someone else has dealt with a similar experience and can give them advice on how to cope with and solve a particular problem.
Even though every caregiver's journey is unique, it can be comforting to know that there are times when you will be in the same stressed-out, confused boat as everyone else who is taking care of an elderly loved one.
Helping you bear the weight of grief
The passing of an elderly care recipient drops a dual hammer on its caregiving victims. It not only brings about a flood of conflicting emotions, it also swamps them with a massive to-do list.
According to Somers, this too is a time when social media can help immensely.
A strong cyber support system can help immensely when a caregiver is trying to deal with the swirling emotional melting pot of sadness, relief, anger, and guilt that often follows on the heels of a senior's death.
As far as the to-do list is concerned, social networking can give you the opportunity to ask family and friends for help with handling funeral preparations and other tasks.
Somers also points out that having to recount the death of a loved one dozens of times can be, "very wearing on the soul." But tools such as e-mail and Facebook posts can alleviate some of the stress associated with informing friends and relative that a person has died.
The hazards of living a virtual life
According to Somers, there are two types of people a caregiver should look out for when surfing the social media waves: busybodies and scam artists.
Busybody opportunists may try to get you to buy products or services that you don't need by telling you that they will help your elderly loved one. Somers also reveals that some real estate agents may even lay in wait, until your loved one dies or moves into a nursing home or assisted living facility, and then start calling to pester you about selling the house.
Scammers have devised countless ways to use social media to lighten the pockets of caregivers and their elderly loved ones. Common cons include: the granny scam, soliciting donations for a fake charity, and identity theft.
Somers also says that it's important to keep an eye out for Debbie Downers. While it's admirable to want to provide support to a fellow caregiver, someone who is constantly negative about their situation may drag you down into their place of despair if you aren't careful.
Thankfully, as Somers points out, social media allows you the freedom to choose who you interact with. If a person is communicating with you inappropriately, you can (and should) unfriend, delete them, etc.
Rackner also cautions caregivers to seek other, more tangible, forms of support in addition to the people they talk to online. "I get concerned when people's e-lives eclipse their real lives."
Her sentiment is echoed by Koehler, who says that the biggest problem with online communication is the lack of in-human interaction; "there is something very real about having a real shoulder to cry on or getting a hug from a loved one or friend."
More ways to connect
Outside of the holy trinity of social networking sites: Facebook, Twitter, and, of course AgingCare.com, there are other ways for caregivers to gain access the help and support they need.
Websites like MealTrain and WhatFriendsDo allow caregivers solicit help with preparing meals and doing chores. Users of these sites can set up calendars and lists of things that need to be done and then send requests for help to their friends and family.
Social media also offer opportunities to commemorate the life of a senior who has passed on. Many people share pictures and memories of an elderly loved one via e-mail or Facebook post after they have died. Facebook also allows you to memorialize a person's profile page.
There are even websites, like Bcelebrated.com, that will allow you to create a page dedicated to a person that has died. These sites typically allow a person to contribute to a page while they are alive and then a caregiver can take over once that person has passed.