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Eldercare: From online games to health gains

Rebecca S. Rivas | 4/18/2012, 7:38 a.m.

ST. LOUIS — At first it was all about the games for Jerry King, 77.  A dozen years ago, her friends from church would tell her about the fun games she could play on the Internet, specifically a website called Pogo.

“I’m fascinated by word games,” she said. “It was just for fun for me.”

But the Internet soon played a grander role in her life — a purpose that has transformed the lives of many seniors.

In 1999, when her husband Jim was diagnosed with colon cancer, she and Jim played Internet games together to pass the time.

“I can remember sitting at the computer while he was lying in bed, and all he would say was, ‘Did you win that time?’ ” she said. “I sat there all night. I was looking for something that I could do and he could do that would take our minds off it all.”

Then she started searching online for answers to her many questions. What will happen? Could the doctors be wrong?

She would also go to the search engine and type in “families dealing with colon cancer.”

“It was a lifeline,” she said. “It helps when you know you are not by yourself. We tend to ask the question, ‘Why me?’ But it made me realize that other families were going through the same thing.”

Minority of minorities

King is currently among the minority of African American seniors who have looked online for health information.

Among family caregivers, such as King, who provide unpaid care to a loved one, 79 percent have access to the Internet. Of those, 88 percent look online for health information, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center report.

Numbers about how this information affects people’s decisions are even more telling. Sixty percent of e-patients say the information found online affected a decision about how to treat an illness or condition, according to Pew’s 2009 survey, “The Social Life of Health Information.”

Like King, 56 percent of e-patients said it changed their overall approach to maintaining their health or the health of someone they aid as a caregiver.

Although games transformed her into an Internet user, King soon became hooked on researching medical information. The Internet was her second opinion about a doctor’s decision. It coached her in knowing what questions to ask a doctor and gave her tools and resources when she cared for her husband at home.

“It was my backbone,” King said.

The Internet provides a kind of 24/7 support group for family caregivers, said Paula Spencer Scott, a senior editor at Caring.com. It can be difficult for someone involved in eldercare to find the time to get out of the house to attend a support group. With the Internet, emotional and practical support is always a few clicks away, she said.

“Someone may be frustrated to bits at 2 a.m. because a loved one has sleep problems or has been having dementia hallucinations at midnight,” Scott said. “Caring.com members always tell us that they feel less alone, less isolated and more supported because of the resources on the site.”