Selfie culture isn’t to blame for elderly disconnection


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 Young people and their selfies cop a lot of flack. Selfies have been blamed for everything from poor body image to traffic jams to a rise in headlice. Of course, blaming problems on selfies is merely a subgenre of the broader sport of blaming Millennials that has steadily gained popularity ever since the generation came of age.

But a comment this week from NSW police, essentially blaming selfie culture and people’s perceived overuse of digital technology for the tragic deaths of an elderly couple in Palm Beach, has got to be a new level of Millennial scapegoating.

While police didn’t go as far as blaming “Millennials” or “Gen Y” or even “the youth”, the inference was strong. Many young people who read the message – ironically, posted to Facebook – saw it as an attack on them.

Anne and Geoffrey Iddon, both in their 80s, were found dead in their home on Tuesday when police broke in after concerns were raised for their welfare. It’s believed Geoffrey, who was Anne’s sole carer, died first of natural causes, leaving his wife – who was blind and had a number of other disabilities – unable to raise the alarm or get help for herself. It’s not known how long the pair had been dead.

It’s a terribly tragic story, especially awful to consider the physical and psychological pain Anne must have endured, helpless and alone, before she, too, passed away.

The response from the Northern Beaches Local Area Command was to implore young people to “put down those iPhones and iPads, and hold back the selfies and making friends with people you don’t know, and have a real conversation with your elderly neighbour who is living a simple life devoid of all electronic gadgets that contribute little to real community cohesion”.

So were these comments fair? Of course this is a story that serves as a reminder of the importance of maintaining social connections with the elderly. But it’s also one that had a very specific set of contributing circumstances that have absolutely nothing to do with young people using social media too much.

As Fairfax Media reported, the couple’s next of kin live overseas, so they were without family who could check up on their welfare. More significantly, they were described as “fiercely independent” and even “reclusive”, and police said they had in fact “consistently refused” aged care assistance and medical support.

Senior pride

So is this really a cautionary tale about young people using their phones too much and not caring enough about the elderly? Or is the real wake-up call one for the older generation not to let pride get in the way of seeking and accepting help and social connection?

Most of us have had a brush or two with a stubborn senior. They can be tough nuts to crack – and you’ve got to respect that they have their reasons for wanting to continue doing things their way. But it can also be extremely distressing for family members to know their older loved ones might not be willing to reach out for help before it’s too late.

As our population ages, perhaps we need to think about educating people about the importance of making essential connections with available services, before they wake up at the age of 85 and are past the point of accepting that help is needed.

We all need to prepare for the day that we are no longer fully independent – and that includes those who are caring for others. Part of taking care of yourself – and others – is knowing when to ask for help, and to accept it when it’s offered.

And perhaps our aged care services need to rethink how they manage such “fiercely independent” elderly couples who say no to formal assistance. Perhaps even those who say no should be receiving regular knocks on the door, or at least regular phone calls – especially when one of them has multiple disabilities.

As nice as it would be for us all to be great friends with our neighbours, it’s also not realistic to expect people who lead busy lives to be constantly alert to the movements of seniors in the area. To imply neighbours were too deep in “fake conversations” on their their phones and somehow therefore at fault for what happened is more than unfair.

In all likelihood, it would have been the neighbours who eventually realised something was wrong and alerted police.

So will putting down the selfie stick save the lives of our elderly neighbours? Unlikely.

In fact, having access to smartphones and social media would actually be hugely beneficial to older people – especially for maintaining those daily social connections with family and friends who may not live close enough to knock on the door for a cup of tea every other day. It’s no replacement for in-person interactions, but it’s certainly a worthwhile way to keep in touch in between.

A regular Facetime session with Nan is a joy previous generations didn’t have the privilege of accessing. Now that is possible, so why blame smartphone users for lack of connection with seniors? Barring poverty (which is of course a major issue for the ageing population, and one that needs to be solved separately) there is no reason that a reasonably healthy, independent person in their 80s or above should be unable to use a smartphone – except, perhaps, if they simply refuse to do so.

Beyond the social benefit, carrying a mobile phone could be lifesaving for an elderly person with limited mobility, in the event of a fall or other medical emergency.

Instead of telling young people to put down their selfie sticks, perhaps we should encourage them to convince their grandparents that it’s worth joining in.

Jenny Noyes is a Herald journalist.

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