Can Technology Improve the Mental Health of Older Adults?

Getting older can pose unique mental health challenges—but with the right tools, it can feel less overwhelming. Learn how tech can help our aging loved ones.

February 20, 2022

As we age, many circumstances can contribute to declining mental health. Medical conditions, medications, psychological experiences like grief, and social stressors, including isolation, often play a role. Cognitive decline, frailty, and fall risk are among the unique risk factors for mental health issues that can emerge later in life.

Many older adults cope well with these stressors; others, however, may develop mental health challenges.

According to the World Health Organization:

  • Between 2015 and 2050, the number of older adults will double as the baby boomer generation ages
  • Mental health issues and neurological problems account for 6-7% of total disabilities in older adults
  • 15% of adults over the age of 60 have a mental health issue

These statistics show that mental health conditions are common among older people, and as the world’s population ages, these conditions will become more common.

Technology can help lessen many risk factors associated with aging, particularly with mental health. It’s important to make sure older adults have access to technology that may help them stay more connected and engaged.

Though technology can be helpful, there is often a learning curve associated with it. So how can we support loved ones and help older adults learn to access and use new tools to manage their mental health and well-being?

Factors of Aging That Impact Mental Health

While mental health is important in every stage of life, it’s especially important in aging populations. When talking about mental health in older adults, we need to remember that it doesn’t just include diagnosed conditions—it encompasses psychological, social, and emotional well-being.

Below, we’ve highlighted several common life changes associated with aging that can negatively impact mental health.

Decline in Functional Ability

Older adults may experience changes in their functional ability, such as vision loss and reduced mobility. For example, many older people have decreased night vision. As a result, they may lose their driver’s license—but just as importantly, they may lose their sense of independence.

Functional issues, such as arthritis and chronic pain, can lead to reduced mobility. Individuals can find it challenging to cope with these new limitations, and this may trigger or contribute to depression.

Increases in Negative Life Events

Older adults experience more negative life events as they age. For example, many people develop strong relationships with people their own age, but as they grow older, they lose more peers.

Bereavement is hard at any age—and as people grow older, they tend to experience more loss. For many, it can feel like the grief is unrelenting.

It’s important that older adults have resources to help them better manage significant losses of family members and friends—or even loss of their own health and independence. With these resources, grief and coping can be healthy, instead of all-consuming.

Couple hug on couch

A Drop in Socioeconomic Status

Some older adults may experience a drop in socioeconomic status when they retire. Although they may have worked hard to save for this life stage, they may not have enough money to support themselves.

Many have a hard time figuring out how to budget on a fixed income. Increased medical expenses with a change in health care coverage due to retirement can also create financial hardship.

Financial stress can be a significant trigger or contributor to mental health issues. Some older adults may be able to rely on family members to support them, but not all people with financial concerns have this luxury—and this can lead to increases in stress and anxiety.

Increased Risk of Loneliness

Loneliness is a well-known risk factor for declines in mental health. Loneliness has been linked to depression, anxiety, and substance use, among other conditions.

It is important to distinguish loneliness from isolation. Loneliness is the experience of feeling distanced or cut off. Isolation refers to actual reduction of a person’s social connections, contacts, or activities.

It is critical for older adults to foster strong social relationships to avoid becoming lonely, isolated, or both.

The Potential for Elder Abuse

Because older adults experience physical and cognitive decline as they age, they are a vulnerable population. They are more likely to experience abuse, and they are more likely to develop mental health issues as a result. It has been shown that abuse can—and often does—lead to symptoms related to conditions like depression, anxiety, personality disorders, and eating disorders.

According to the National Council on Aging, 10% of individuals in the United States over the age of 60 have experienced some form of elder abuse, including:

  • Emotional abuse
  • Verbal abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Financial abuse
  • Sexual abuse

It’s important to understand the unique factors that can contribute to a decline in the mental health of older adults, and that many more issues can arise in aging populations beyond the ones we’ve emphasized here.

Mental Health in the Golden Years

Three older woman walking in a park

Ipsit Vahia, MD, discusses ways to improve mental well-being in older populations, highlights research about technology’s role in mental flourishing, and answers audience questions about how we and our loved ones can truly enjoy the golden years.

Three older woman walking in a park

Addressing Obstacles To Using New Technology

Younger adults often encounter and learn new technology through work, peers, family, or school. The same cannot be said of older adults.

If older adults are not exposed to new technology, they are unlikely to take the initiative to learn how to use it. But technology can help older adults overcome many issues that impact their mental health, support their emotional well-being, and prevent some symptoms of mental health conditions.

Older adults may have physical impairments that make using new technology more challenging. Some older adults develop physical conditions, like arthritis. This can make it hard to press small buttons on a phone or other piece of technology. Many older adults also struggle with vision concerns, which can make it hard to see information on a screen, especially a small screen.

Since many older adults take an income hit when they retire, the cost of technology can pose an issue. Each new phone is more expensive than the last. The costs of data plans may also vary significantly, and older adults may not understand how using cellular data can lead to unforeseen expenses.

These are just some of the reasons an older adult may resist new technology. With the right help, though, they can overcome their hesitation.

According to Dr. Ipsit Vahia, associate chief of the Division of Geriatric Psychiatry at McLean Hospital, with good training and support, older adults are as capable as their younger counterparts of picking up new technologies.

“The key is anticipating that older adults may have anxiety and recognizing that they are most likely to adapt to technologies from which they can appreciate a direct tangible benefit,” Vahia said.

Vahia explained how the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, led to large numbers of older adults learning to use devices and adapting to telecommunication platforms. “This proved to be the best way for them to remain connected with family, friends, and networks such as their church,” Vahia said.

Another important obstacle to consider: stigma. Many people may hold beliefs that older individuals struggle to learn how to use basic technology. Older adults are aware of these stereotypes. Some of them fear embarrassment, don’t want to be humiliated, and believe it is easier to avoid the situation.

However, they can enjoy significant benefits if they persevere in learning.

The Benefits of Technology for Mental Health

Regardless of a person’s reason for using technology, simply learning how to use a new app or device can help their mental health.

“We know that remaining engaged in active learning is also protective to cognition and mood,” Vahia said. “Learning a new technology or the use of a new device that someone may not be familiar with represents such new learning. This is an important secondary benefit.”

It is extremely important to teach older adults how to use new technology, as it can benefit their quality of life and protect their mental health. Studies show that using technology can have significant positive impacts, including staying fit, maintaining good financial health, keeping in touch with others, and feeling well-connected.

Exercising can help lessen symptoms from conditions like depression and anxiety. It is a first line treatment recommendation, especially for milder mental health symptoms, which do not respond well to medications.

Technology may help older adults protect their mobility and fitness, especially if they have chronic conditions such as arthritis. For example, basic exercises done with guidance from workout apps could help an older adult stay mobile during the day without even leaving the house.

A study published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry showed that the more often people test their minds using mental games, the lower their chances of developing significant neurological issues, such as dementia. However, there is no clear consensus on whether online games may help prevent cognitive decline.

“We know that remaining engaged in active learning is also protective to cognition and mood.”
– Dr. Ipsit Vahia

Vahia explained that games that help people remember words, for example, may only help in just that one area of thinking. They may not help people with other aspects of memory, or with functions, such as planning.

When considering online games to help keep one’s mind sharp, older adults can focus on playing games they find enjoyable. In addition, they should incorporate other forms of prevention in their lives, such as movement, socializing, and a healthy diet.

Social isolation can be a significant factor in loneliness and depression. Older adults can use technology to stay in touch with their family members and friends. Communication technologies have proven to be especially useful for older adults because they can help lessen feelings of isolation.

With videoconferencing, older adults can have video calls with their siblings, children, and grandchildren. They can feel a level of involvement in the everyday lives of loved ones. If older adults can have engaging conversations with their children and grandchildren, they will have an easier time staying connected and keeping their minds sharp.

As with any technology and any age group, it’s important for older adults to understand data privacy and security. While all technology users are at some level of risk, older adults may be especially vulnerable to loss of privacy, identity theft, or other negative technology related outcomes.

McLean Is Here to Help

Provider works with patient on a neuropsychological puzzle test

If you or a loved one are struggling with decline in emotional or cognitive health due to aging, McLean offers world-class mental health treatment for older adults. Call us today at 877.866.5920 to learn more about treatment options.

Provider works with patient on a neuropsychological puzzle test

Ways You Can Help an Older Adult With Technology

Trying to encourage someone to try something new—or teaching something new—can be overwhelming for everyone involved.

Here are 10 tips to help older adults feel more comfortable with new technology.

  1. Older adults are most likely to pick up new technologies that can offer them a direct benefit. It’s important to explain how a technology could help them stay in touch with family, provide entertainment, or provide other value that is meaningful to them.
  2. One size does not fit all. It’s critical to understand the tech proficiency of each adult and to provide training accordingly.
  3. Older adults on fixed incomes may need to deal with constraints such as limited data plans for Wi-Fi or cellular networks. These factors need to be considered when planning technology use.
  4. Demonstrating technology is usually more helpful than explaining how to use it. Also, it can be very helpful to provide written or video directions an older adult can turn to for additional support after the training is completed.
  5. It’s important to help older adults “practice” technology use. Just training them or teaching them may not be enough.
  6. Make sure they can use the technology the way it is intended. Never make assumptions about an older adult’s comfort level with basic hardware, such as smartphones or tablets. Explain every step of the tech use process. Always start by showing how to turn the device on and off. Show them how to adjust the volume. That way, you don’t run the risk of overlooking a step that they missed.
  7. Always have a second device with you. That way, you can show them how to use the device as they use one to follow along with you.
  8. Take a few minutes to validate the difficulty of learning a new skill. You may want to express how hard it was for you to learn how to use a new device.
  9. Try to avoid using jargon. Instead, use metaphors that are comfortable for the person you are teaching. If you can stay away from jargon, they will have an easier time following along with you.
  10. Most importantly, stay patient. If you remain calm and patient when helping an older adult, they will feel more comfortable—and less stressed—when learning how to use a new device.