Carol Obenauer, 57, gains motivation from it.

Ann Herzinger, 64, uses it as a tool for enlightenment.

Mel Kaup, 64, logs on to stay in the loop, nudged initially by the lure of exclusive family photos.

“After our son Andy got married, the rest of our kids started talking about neat wedding pictures the very next day. When I asked, ‘How are you seeing pictures already?’, they responded with ‘Facebook.’ I said,‘How can I see them?’ and they replied, ‘Dad, you need to open a Facebook account.’ So, I did.”

That was more than 10 years ago.

Carol, Ann and Mel, all from the Omaha area, are among an increasing number of older adults who are embracing social media – or at least not shunning it – as a means of staying informed and connecting with friends and family.

According to Gallup, adults ages 50 to 64 notched the greatest increase in Facebook usage from 2011 to 2018: “This group’s rate of use has grown from about a third in 2011 to more than half today.”

Ann, who has been on Facebook since 2009, set up an account to keep in touch with her daughter who, at the time, was teaching English in China. Having accumulated hundreds of Facebook friends since then, she now posts occasionally about her 9-month-old grandson and gleans information from a number of wellness-focused Facebook groups.

Many of her friends and relatives are active on Facebook – but not all of them. “I have two sisters who refuse to be on Facebook and wear it like a badge of honor. However, when something happens, they’re often out of the loop,” she says.

An eight-year veteran of Facebook, Carol joined, she says, to enjoy pictures of friends and family (including her grandson, Wade), and to keep up-to-date on nieces and nephews. As a teacher, she uses Facebook to follow teaching sites. As an active person, she says, “I’ve often used it to connect with people to train for races or just run or bike for fun. I enjoy watching the accomplishments of friends. We can motivate each other to try something new or to challenge ourselves to work a little harder.”

The health benefits appear to extend even further than friendly motivation. A 2016 study of 591 older adults, published in the Journal of Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, found a correlation between social media connectedness and “lower loneliness, better health, fewer chronic illnesses and lower depression.”

Julie Masters, Ph.D., a professor and Gerontology Department chair at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, says isolation can be as impactful on health as a sedentary lifestyle.

“As people age, the potential for social isolation, the potential for depression, increases because our ‘social worlds’ change, and for some people, they may get smaller. They’re not able to go out like they did when they were younger, or friends and family are gone. Something like Facebook gives aging adults the opportunity to interact with people on a broader level,” she says.

“When we think about connecting with other people, that has a health benefit.”

As with most anything, the benefits of Facebook are balanced by potential pitfalls. Mel and Ann shared similar advice: Keep political discourse to a minimum.

Ann says she’s had Facebook friends whose posts were so “venomous” she had to stop scrolling through their feeds.

Mel advises: “Stick with fun pictures, wishing (people) happy birthdays and anniversaries, and updating friends and family on life issues. I would leave politically-charged conversations to a face-to-face encounter.”

Beyond that, just know that con artists are always on the prowl for new targets. The AARP, which maintains a free Fraud Watch Network for people of all ages, members and non-members alike, offers some straightforward advice:

  • Only engage on social media platforms with people you know
  • Don’t post information that could be useful to identity thieves
  • Use your privacy settings
  • Don’t bite on gift, sweepstakes or other money offers that seem too good to be true

Those who may be wary of getting on Facebook (or other social media platform such as Instagram or Twitter) can lean on younger relatives or local resources to bulk up their understanding. Omaha’s Do Space, for one, offers a “Cyber Seniors” gathering Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to noon. It’s a chance for seniors to explore technology with the help of knowledgeable volunteers. (Membership cards are required, but Do Space memberships are free.)

Overall, Ann says being on Facebook has been a “good experience.” Both she and Carol have moves coming up, and both plan to use the platform to help with the adjustment.

Carol says,“I will probably use it to connect with a new group of people to work out with.”