Elderly Depression and The Great Digital Divide

What’s the most persistent digital divide in America?

It isn’t by race, income or educational attainment, studies show, but by age.

Just 56 percent of Americans over 65 are online, according to a May study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, compared with 83 percent of people aged 50 to 64, 92 percent of people 30 to 49 and 98 percent of 18-to-29 year olds. The 2013 study represented the first time the percentage of America’s online elderly tipped over the 50 percent mark.

The racial divide, by comparison, only runs from 76 percent of Hispanic Americans who are online to 85 percent of blacks and 86 percent of non-Hispanic whites, Pew found.

The digital divide measured by income is somewhat greater, from 76 percent of households that make less than $30,000 per year to 96 percent of households that make more than $75,000. The education divide comes closest to the age divide. About 59 percent of Americans who didn’t complete high school are functionally online, Pew found, compared with 96 percent of college graduates.

The effects of this divide can be pernicious, said Tony Sarmiento, executive director of Senior Service America, a Washington area nonprofit organization that works to increase Internet use among the elderly. Disconnected seniors are more likely to feel isolated and sink into depression, Sarmiento said, especially if they’re housebound by physical ailments or have lost much of their nondigital social circle to death, disease or dementia.

2009 report by the Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies found a 20 percent reduction in depression among seniors who are effective online compared with those who are not.

“We all end up paying dearly for that in terms of older people needing more care because their health deteriorates,” Sarmiento said. “So being able to lessen that isolation online, not just with email but with Skype and things like that could have a tremendous impact.”