Sally Balch Hurme’s 75-year-old husband, Arthur, has dementia. Every day she struggles to keep him safe in a world full of digital threats.
Hundreds of emails pour into Arthur’s smartphone from telemarketers with hard-to-resist offers. His Facebook account is peopled with “friends” from foreign countries — all strangers.
“He has no idea who they are,” says Hurme, an elder law lawyer and author. “Some of them are wearing bandoliers of ammunition, holding their guns. It is horrific.”
Then, there’s Amazon, a never-ending source of shopping temptation. Recently, Arthur ordered four pocket translators, several watches and a large quantity of maple sugar candies for $1,000. Though the items can be returned, Hurme doesn’t always know where Arthur has stored items he’s bought.
Many families are encountering similar concerns. As cognitive impairment increases among older adults, devices like computers, smartphones and tablets become difficult to use and, in some cases, problematic.
Most adults 65 and older go online
The emergence of this issue tracks with the growing popularity of devices that let older adults communicate with friends and family via email, join interest groups on Facebook, visit virtually via Skype or FaceTime, and bank, shop, take courses or read publications online.
According to the Pew Research Center, 75 percent of adults 65 and older have used the internet in 2021, up from 43 percent in 2010. The share of this age group that owns a smartphone has grown from 53 percent to 61 percent in the past two years, Pew also found, with 12 percent of people 65 over characterizing themselves as dependent on the devices, comparable to the rate among those aged 30 to 64.
Already, some physicians are adapting to this new digital reality. At Johns Hopkins Medicine, Halima Amjad, an assistant professor of medicine, now asks older patients if they’re using a computer or a smartphone and having trouble such as forgetting passwords or getting locked out of accounts.
“The anxiety associated with ‘Oh my God, I have to use this and I don’t know how’ totally sets people back and undoes any gains that technology might offer,”
“If there’s a notable change in how someone is using technology, we would proceed with a more in-depth cognitive evaluation,” she says.
At Rush University’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, neurologist Neelum Aggarwal finds that older adults are bringing up problems with technology as a “nonthreatening way to talk about trouble with thinking.