Caregivers of Older Adults: Advantages and Disadvantages of Internet-Based Social Support*

Article excerpt

We explored the perceptions of caregivers of older adults using Internet-based social support networks regarding the unique advantages and disadvantages of online social support. Participants were recruited with permission of Web owners through 15 Web sites that offered social networks, and responses from 63 electronically submitted surveys were analyzed qualitatively. Two major advantages of online social support were attributes of computer-mediated communication (CMC) (anonymity, asynchrony, and ability to personalize use) and connectivity (connecting with other caregivers). Disadvantages included limitations of CMC and complaints with CMC. Findings suggest that Internet use may be a potential resource for caregivers in expanding their status-similar social support networks.

Key Words: aging, care giving, Internet, social support.

Advancements in computer technologies and increased Internet use have changed the way many individuals live, work, play, and communicate. America is increasingly "a nation online" (National Telecommunications and Information Administration [NTIA], 2002). In fact, in September 2001, 143 million people-almost 54% of Americans-used the Internet at home, school, and or work (NTIA). By the end of 2001, the active home-use Internet population in the United States reached nearly 105 million, representing a 6% increase over the year (Nielsen/NetRatings, 2002). In addition, use of information technologies has spread rapidly among all demographic groups, including women, minorities, and families with modest incomes (Rainie & Packel, 2001) and across geographic areas (Cooper & Victory, 2002). Further, a national survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project (Horrigan, 2001) revealed that 84% of those Internet users sampled (N = 1,697) reported involvement in online groups. By their estimate, 90 million Americans engaged in online group communication, and 28% reported contacting a support group for a medical condition or personal problem.

Use of the Internet for social support by caregivers warrants scholarly attention, because caregiving has become a normative part of the life cycle of a growing number of Americans (Wagner, 1997). Research indicates that caregivers benefit from association with others who have had a similar experience (Pillemer & Suitor, 1996a; Suitor, Pillemer, & Keeton, 1995). Thoits (1995) proposed that a promising new direction for social support research is the investigation of optimal "matches" between an individual's socioemotional needs and support received. Thus, considering the rise in online support group activity, insight into the effect of these environments on the lives of individuals and families becomes increasingly important (Wright, 1999). Previous research (Smyth & Harris, 1993) documented the value of computer-based intervention with caregivers and the content analysis of caregiver online support group dialogue (White & Dorman, 2000). However, the experience of caregivers themselves and how they use computer-mediated communication (CMC) remains largely unexplored. We attempted to fill this gap by exploring the perceptions of caregivers of older adults who engage in Internet-based social support networks. We sought to discover what, if any, were the unique advantages and disadvantages caregivers identify when assessing CMC as a communication medium and delivery mechanism for social support.

Theoretical Framework

The constructivist paradigm was the lens through which we examined the experience of online caregivers. Constructivism theorizes that "realities exist in the form of multiple intangible mental constructions, socially and experientially based" (Cuba & Lincoln, 1998, p. 206). Thus, we viewed constructivism in the epistemological sense, acknowledging language "operating as the medium through which we come to understand or know the world" (Edley, 2001, p. 437).

Constructivist principles are consistent with the exploration and understanding of caregiving in at least three important ways: (a) caregiving and interactions within families are intensely lived experiences, socially created within cultural, familial, and sociohistorical contexts; (b) individuals are active agents in creating their own lives (Thoits, 1995) and in reconstructing their lives as they age (Allen, Blieszner, & Roberto, 2000); and (c) caregiver perception plays a key role in construction of meaning of the caregiving experience and in evaluation of social support (Stuckey & Smyth, 1997; Thoits, 1995). …