The “Silent Generation,” or those born between 1928 and 1945, aren’t usually mentioned alongside the likes of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram unless someone’s talking about these people not using the platforms or is discussing viral misinformation. A Pew Research Center study this year said that 45 percent of people over 65 use social media sites. Yet, for the majority of seniors, it is more about gathering information than sharing things about themselves. For example, AARP has pointed out that Facebook's largest function for older folks has been helping them keep in touch with their families, especially their grandchildren. But this doesn’t really reflect the digital connectivity many elders are experiencing.
BJ, a friend who just turned 80, does not own a computer, yet he's one of the 4 out of 10 seniors with a smartphone, which never leaves his side. For him social media is purely social—no grandkids, just people from every stage of his eight decades. It has kept him youthful and connected. He has figured out how to make Facebook and Instagram work for him by asking his younger friends for help when he gets stuck.
Speaking of assistance, tech help is readily available for any senior looking to explore social media without relying on younger friends or family members. For example, the library in East Hampton, New York has a program, much like other libraries, called “Teen Tech Time,” where for two hours on Saturdays (by appointment) teens assist adults with tech issues and the internet. Volunteer Kimberly Bermeo, 15, says, “as Gen Z grows up, we have learned to become masters and leaders in the tech world. By providing assistance to those struggling with technology and the number of growing platforms on the internet, we unite the community.” Kyle Fichtner, one of the young adult librarians who runs the program, says many older adults fear exposure of their personal information and don't readily post their activities on social media. They need a little help navigating those services and using them safely.
BJ, on the other hand, readily posts about life as he experiences it and loves the feedback social media provides. A perfect example of this was when he and his son visited me to celebrate his 80th in July. Since none of his friends lived nearby, there wouldn’t be a party. Yet this did not prevent him from commemorating his 80th birthday with hundreds of pals and a few relatives scattered across the globe.
He asked a friend from a social group he had joined decades before to arrange a Zoom roast for his last night at 79. The event was less of a roast and more of a tribute, and it created a party atmosphere. It left him feeling good about himself and ready to take the leap into a new decade. Plus his son and I learned new things about him.
Jesse Epstein, who attended the roast, has been teaching at the college level for 44 years. Currently on the faculty of Touro College Graduate School of Technology, he was founding chair of the Masters of Art Program of Web and Media Design. He moved to Costa Rica with his wife and young child four years ago when he was 70.
“I wouldn’t be able to live the life I now lead without the assistance of Zoom, Google Classroom, WhatsApp, and Microsoft Teams,” Epstein tells me on the phone, speaking from his home in Tamarindo. “My current students are all masters-level school teachers, seeking an additional masters in Instructional Technology. I use Zoom to observe and evaluate how well they incorporate these technologies into their lessons live in the classroom. I was surprised by how much more attentive students seemed to be online than they typically were in the classroom receiving the same material.”
He keeps in touch in a very real way with friends he’s known for decades. “Networking technologies have supported all my life choices and helped me and my family achieve a level of freedom and independence I didn’t think was possible for someone in their mid-seventies,” he adds. “I’ve met other semiretired and retired people who are also thriving for the same reasons.”
On the morning of BJ's birthday, his son put candles with an eight and zero in his omelet, a gold paper crown next to his napkin, and a happy birthday streamer wrapped around the umbrella pole in the wooden table on the deck. We knew BJ would like the fuss and, sure enough, he did and posted pictures of his breakfast to his Facebook page. A former triathlete, he even asked me to record a video of him on his iPhone when he went swimming in the bay. Like a ridiculous parody of a sports broadcaster, I added commentary, while his son jumped into the water and joined the action. Of course that also wound up on Facebook, as did the game of Petanque he played with his son in my driveway, and dinner at a lovely restaurant I’d booked a reservation for over a month before his birthday.
Upon arrival, I whispered a request to the hostess for a candle in his desert. She nodded. The eatery was packed, and the only issue with our meal was when the waiter came to clear our dinner plates. They had run out of desert. However, my friend was a happy man. He had hundreds of likes from people he knew and couldn’t be with in person, making this his biggest birthday party yet.
Though thousands of people use social media as their individual performance platform, there are institutions that bring senior storytelling to the public on a larger scale. Franklin Furnace was founded in 1976 by director Martha Wilson as an archive for artists’ books and variable media. The downtown New York avant-garde institution was the launching pad for innovative performance artists like Laurie Anderson and Eric Bogosian, who eventually became part of the larger cultural lexicon.
Harley Spiller, the current director, tells me that “Because Franklin Furnace now has an online presenting platform, we have been able to maintain our media-savvy traditional audience, attract newcomers of all ages, and—what’s most rewarding—bring many aficionados back into the fold. Many senior artists left NYC after retiring from their practice. Their hard-won and deep perspective has been a boon to our public digital Q&A sessions directly after performances. We believe that social media has made our community more whole than ever before.”
He shared some text from a recent grant he wrote. “Most of the main contributors to the birth of 20th-century performance are now septua- and octogenarians, so time is of the essence to honor and accurately preserve their work … We [Franklin Furnace] aim to extend our mutual histories by exploring artists’ work and new ideas, past and present. It is essential to engage in dialogue, reflection, and critical thinking representing multiple cross-generational intersections.” Social media, Spiller says, is integral to achieving this goal.