Google vice president Vint Cerf, one of the acknowledged “fathers of the modern Internet” turned 68 years old on June 23. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak will turn 60 in August, and his former partner Steven Jobs is 56. Microsoft founder Bill Gates turns 56 later this year.

Many of the Internet’s most acclaimed innovators qualify for a senior discount. Recent trends show that older people are embracing the online world in bigger numbers than ever. Nearly 18 million people over age 55 are on Facebook alone. And why not? The Pew Internet & American Life Project 2010 study “Older Adults and Social Media” found that in any number of ways, social media is made for seniors.

The Pew study found that people over age 50 get and send email, read news, and do online banking in almost the same percentages as people under age 50. While they lag behind those under 50 in using social media, people in the 50 – 64 year old and 65 and up age groups have doubled their use of social media from 2009 to 2010. At this rate, the numbers will be even in just a few years.

Older adults are learning quickly that social media has a lot to offer them, and the Pew study discussed some of the main reasons.

Social media allows people to connect from every walk of life. It’s hard to think of any other space or place where tweens, teens, sandwich generation members, grandparents, friends and neighbors feel equally at home, and regularly connect and communicate. Photos, videos and updates shared regularly can keep distant family and friends in touch. Children and grandchildren live their lives through social media. Their older relatives have learned to join them online if they want to stay involved in their world.

Senior online users have learned that social networks have become critically important for professional networking, continuing education, and political participation. The same skills they’ve developed to communicate and network powerfully in person translate online, too, putting them ahead of their younger counterparts in many ways.

Social networking users are much more likely to reconnect with people from their past. These renewed connections can provide a powerful support network. In the Pew survey, about half of all social networking users ages 50 and older said they had been contacted by someone from their past who found them online.

Older adults living with a chronic illness are more likely to reach out for support online. Health information is the third most popular topic online across all age groups online, but even more popular as users get older.

Still, many older adults find technology frustrating and confusing. Then again, doesn’t everyone at times! Groups like New York’s Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) are helping change this, demonstrating the power of technology to change and improve the way we age. This nonprofit organization provides training, support, online services, and community-building programs that give older adults the skills and confidence to thrive online. Program participants improve their social engagement, health and well-being, financial security, and find new opportunities for social engagement, creativity, and life-long learning.

OATS operates SeniorPlanet.org, a community for older adults online where they can share information and resources to improve their daily quality of life. It offers senior friendly entertainment, education, an events calendar, senior blogs on a variety of topics. The OATS model is one that should be replicated in as many communities as possible.

Isolation is one of our greatest enemies as we age. The internet can bring the world to someone’s door, create a community, break down barriers and provide much needed support. It may prove to be one of the most important tools in allowing individuals to remain independent and engaged. If you’re an older adult who’s engaged online, encourage your peers to join you. If you’re a family member, caregiver, or friend, spend some time helping older adults you know discover what the online world has to offer.

Until next time, enjoy the ride in good health!

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