Therapeutic use of the Internet in nursing homes

A recent study by the Phoenix Center looked at adults 55 and over, but not employed or in nursing homes, and found that Internet use decreased their level of depression by 20%. I’m not at all surprised by this, and I believe a similar decrease in depression levels would be observed in nursing home residents as well.

While residents are living together rather than isolated in their own homes, and therefore have more opportunities for socialization, there are still many people who don’t partake of the recreational activities offered for their enjoyment. Some residents never leave their rooms due to physical or psychological barriers, and some don’t like crowds. Other residents feel uncomfortable socializing because of the physical changes of illness, wish to pursue activities other than those available in the nursing home, or miss connecting with those outside the home. The Internet offers the opportunity for nursing home residents to transcend their physical illnesses, leave the boundaries of the facility, and connect with the world.

Here are ways in which I use the Internet for therapeutic purposes:

1. Psychoeducation regarding illness

Oftentimes residents are given diagnoses, but little information about them, leaving them confused or upset, which can result in noncompliance with medication and care. I search for a resident’s illness with them on the computer, and discuss the symptoms and treatment, which enhances cooperation with medical staff. Some residents are more receptive to information coming from a “neutral” source than from their own caregivers, and most residents appreciate a print-out of information they can refer to over time. Posting a list of illnesses and the Web addresses of important sites near the computer would facilitate this process (eg; The American Diabetes Association, the Amputee Coalition of America, etc).

2. Support regarding illness

Most of the residents deal with their illnesses in isolation, when there are many avenues of support available to them on the Internet. Having the opportunity to “discuss” their concerns anonymously with peers can often be more effective than trying to generate a conversation between two or more residents at the nursing home, due to discomfort at revealing personal information. At, for example, stroke survivors can “meet” other survivors on-line and get information and emotional support, as can their caregivers. To find the appropriate support groups, enter the name of a particular illness and “support” into the browser window and look around from there. Another option: Look for a Yahoo group about the illness and sign up the resident after establishing a free email account through resources such as Yahoo or Google.

3. Connection with family and friends

Why should residents have to limit themselves to family visits or phone calls when most of the rest of the country is communicating via e-mail, Twitter, or a social networking site such as Facebook or MySpace? I’ve established e-mail accounts for octogenarians to help them keep up with the grandkids, and a free Facebook page would accomplish the same thing with a bit more zing.

4. Reminiscence

I once worked with a terminally ill 88-year-old man who’d left Barbados in his thirties and had never realized his dream of seeing his country again. Imagine his expression as I entered “Barbados” into Google Images and up popped photos of the country he thought he’d never be able to see again. This intervention generated a flood of memories and a profound sense of relief and closure. Reminiscence could also be conducted in a group format, with connection to a large screen, so that residents should share with others information about their home countries or hometowns.

5. People search

One of my favorite things to do with residents online is to find their long-lost friends and relatives. For example, through the Internet white pages, I helped one extremely lonely and depressed resident find a friend with whom he lost touch 60 years ago. They are now enjoying an exchange of letters and photos, and my patient has something else upon which to focus besides his poor health and lack of visitors.

6. Fun & miscellany

Acting under the theory that doing something enjoyable will begin the upward spiral out of depression, I’ve occasionally brought a resident to the computer to listen to their kind of music (try, to check out the latest fashions, or to see photos of famous movie stars (Google Images). Once a 97-year-old Panamanian resident told me she’d felt unattractive all her life because she thought her lips were too big. “Oh, no,” I told her, “your lips are considered beautiful and the height of fashion.” She believed me after I clicked on Google Image photos of Angelina Jolie.

Do you have more therapeutic uses of the Internet? Please add them to the comments section below.

Dr. Barbera is an author and a licensed psychologist consulting in long-term care facilities in the New York City area. She frequently lectures on subjects related to psychology, aging, and nursing homes. Dr. Barbera is available for private consulting with organizations, institutions, and individuals around eldercare issues. Visit her personal blog at

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