The Information Age

Posted May 06, 2010, at 6:53 p.m.

A national survey of Americans who will be 100 years old or older this year revealed some interesting facts about the triple-digit club. The survey, released by UnitedHealthcare, found that many are not intimidated by new information technology, and in fact rely on it to stay in touch with family and friends.

Eight percent of centenarians have sent a text message or an instant message, UnitedHealthcare reported, up from 1 percent two years ago. And 12 percent have listened to music on an MP3 player, up from 4 percent three years ago. Eleven percent had visited YouTube.

These results should shame those in the half-century club who think Facebook is where high school graduates pen their best wishes to their classmates and who think an iPod is a new cataract surgical device.

But the information technology explosion of the last 20 years should not be universally embraced without some skepticism, and without eyes wide open to potential consequences.

After all, a tool as basic as the hammer is brilliant in its efficiency in driving in nails, but can be catastrophic if used for everything from cracking eggs to setting the alarm clock. So using a smart phone 14 hours a day to communicate with family, friends and co-workers may result in a wealth of details, but ultimately shallow relationships.

Whether the availability of information — the Internet via laptops, cell phones, MP3 players and other devices — is empowering or overwhelming should remain an open question.

There is a clear link between health and those seniors who are open to using new devices and who want to stay in touch with the wider world. With this in mind, the number of centenarians who have embraced new information technology should not be a surprise.

A follow-up survey with the centenarians who use laptops and smart phones might ask how they felt about the many other devices as they were developed and mass marketed in their lifetime. Were those people the first on their block to buy a TV? Did they come to believe TV was not necessarily a benign influence on family life, citizenship and community?

The centenarians surveyed chose Golden Girl — or young chick? — Betty White, who is 88 years old, as their top choice for a dinner guest with 57 percent, edging out another TV star, Bill Cosby, 55 percent. But centenarians are also tuned in to politics. Interestingly, in their top-five dinner guest list were Bill Clinton, 54 percent; Michelle Obama, 44 percent; and Sarah Palin and Nancy Pelosi, tied at 31 percent.

Whether they download news podcasts or open the newspaper on their doorstep, centenarians have a wealth of knowledge and wisdom that should be treasured.

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