When her mother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer six years ago, Christine Dolch Luce immediately turned to the giant pool of instantly accessible information known as the Internet.
But her searches were unfruitful—plenty of information on the disease, but not much about how relatives can cope with their own grief over an imminent loss. Instead of giving up in despair, Luce turned proactive: She put the Internet's vast powers to work for her benefit. She created a blog, www.lungcancerstories.net, that has drawn thousands of grieving people to share their own stories and find support.
Luce was hooked. Her positive experience with online social media convinced her to dig deeper. She took Web design classes and, realizing there are many older folks unfamiliar with and overwhelmed by the Web, decided to start a business to help them.
"It's a total phenomenon," said Luce, 59, of Orange, about social media. "It's unreal. It's amazing. It's global."
Older people are jumping on the high-tech bandwagon. The fastest-growing age group among Internet users is ages 70 to 75, according to the Pew Research Center. Browsing the Web and e-mail are the top reasons they log online, but older people are also delving into social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
"They're quickly discovering that this whole social media thing is cool and exciting for them, too," said Aaron Smith, research specialist at the Pew Research Center.
An AARP survey showed that 40 percent of adults 50 and older feel right at home using the Internet, and more than 25 percent use social media sites—Facebook being the most popular.
Hence last year's launch of the AARP Texas Facebook page, which has more than 2,700 fans—and growing, according to Rafael Ayuso, communications manager for AARP Texas. The organization also has 700 followers on Twitter.
"It has become a very powerful engagement tool that still holds a lot of promise," said Ayuso. AARP uses social media to inform and entertain. It has the latest information on health care and elections, for example; and it also features purely fun posts like who has the cutest pet and a high school photo contest. Coming soon: Spanish-language social media offerings, taking into account Texas' sizable Hispanic population.
Does social media improve quality of life? The University of Alabama at Birmingham is conducting a five-year study of 300 residents in assisted and independent living communities. Researchers interact directly with participants, teaching them about the Internet, e-mail, blogging and social media sites, said Shelia Cotten, a sociology professor heading up the study. Once people master the technology, they dive right in.
"It's literally changed their lives," Cotten said. "They tell us they feel part of the human race again. One said it meant taking a step away from the grave. It gives me goosebumps."
Jeffrey Kreisberg, author of Taking Care of Your Healthcare and a blog of the same name, said the Internet and social media are great assets for older people. But Kreisberg, 60, of Coppell, warned that shifting solely toward the virtual world can end up alienating people. There's still nothing like talking face to face, he said.
Older people should embrace the online world much as they would any new thing—with moderation, Kreisberg said. Keep one foot in the old familiar world and stretch the other into new and exciting territory.
Hernán Rozemberg is a freelance writer based in Texas.