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Seniors can learn a new trick -- social networking

Social networks can attract older users and help keep them connected

An 89-year-old woman used to find computers intimidating. Today, she's not only using a computer, she's on a social network, emailing with her family and getting pictures from her grandson in Australia.

Mary McNamara, 89, of Des Plains, Ill., uses a social network to connect with her eight children, 16 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren.

When people talk about social networking being for young people, they haven't met Mary McNamara.

McNamara lives in a community for senior citizens in Des Plains, Ill. On any given day, you might find her emailing with her children and grandchildren. You might even find her going through the pictures that her grandson, a professional football player in Australia, posts for her to see.

This woman, who is nearly 90, may not be just out of college, but she is a social networker.

"In my first experience with it, I was afraid I was going to do something wrong and break it," McNamara told Computerworld. "I have children all over the United States and it's really helpful to get in touch with them quickly. At first my family was very, very surprised. They were thrilled to death that I started getting more up-to-date in my life."

McNamara is one of the senior citizens using Connected Living, a social network set up for the residents of more than 200 senior communities in 19 states. By the beginning of 2013, Connected Living is expected to be available to people in 300 facilities in 24 states.

Sarah Hoit, CEO and co-founder of Connected Living, said the company is focused on people in senior communities because they are separated from their families and often feel disconnected.

"I think a lot of people had written off an elder population really connecting," said Hoit. "What we have proven is that not only will the seniors connect, it profoundly changes their lives and their voice and happiness... The initial premise is to connect an entire generation of seniors who were left out of the digital divide."

Connected Living, a cloud-based service, is only for people living in those residential communities, but Hoit said they're hoping to eventually expand to all senior citizens.

So far, Connected Living has seen a strong adoption rate.

The site first launched in a senior center in Quincy, Mass. and within three months had 50% of the population connected.

So what is Connected Living doing that's getting senior citizens not just online but on a social network?

Hoit said the company focused on creating a simple service, without making it simplistic or insulting.

The service, for example, offers video chat so seniors can see their children and grandchildren on their desktops or laptops. It also is touch-based and makes good use of icons, which pop up when an email comes in. If a user touches a picture of her son, for example, an email to him will automatically come up. In another section, if she touches a photo, a photo album will come up.

Everything is designed to happen in just one or two touches, Hoit said.

"It's fun. It's dynamic," she added. "We've looked at colors and font size and visibility."

These are lessons that some of the major social networks, like Facebook and Google+, could take advantage of if they're trying to attract more seniors.

"Getting computers into the hands of seniors is easy but getting them to use them is much more difficult," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "Seniors who didn't use computers during their working life have a much steeper learning curve if they try to take them up now. That's a bigger battle and one that has flummoxed many a son and daughter who have given their parents computers."

Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with ZK Research, said using more icons, for instance, is a good idea for any group that's not used to using technology.

" Facebook and Google+ could try and make things more intuitive," he added. "Think back to the early days of AOL when people didn't know the Internet. They had big icons that said "Travel" or "Banking." It's a mistake to think people are too old to learn. There's value for everyone. It's just finding what that value is."

Kerravala also noted that while it's good for seniors to be connected, there's also a benefit to social networks to have senior users.

Adding to the user base, regardless of age, is a good thing for any network. And ads for group travel, health care and restaurants can be targeted at older users.

"People on a fixed budget are always looking for a deal, so marketing promotions would work with that audience," said Kerravala.

As for McNamara, who has 16 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren, she's just enjoying being online and being more connected with her family.

"Communication-wise, yes, we are closer," she said. "About six or seven years ago, I was visiting a son in Albuquerque and my grandson was about five or six and he flabbergasted me with what he knew about that computer. That really intimidated me... Now he emails with me."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

Read more about social media in Computerworld's Social Media Topic Center.


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