Caregivers of older adults online: Perceptions of Internet-based social support
Approximately 73 million Americans have sought health-related information through the Internet. Nearly 30 million individuals have contacted an online support group for a medical condition or personal problem. Caregivers of older adults are among those accessing the Internet for information and social contact. The purpose of the study was to investigate the experience of caregivers using Internet-based social support. Research questions focused on group differences in time spent online and perceived importance of online social support, what caregivers describe as supportive about online social networks, what led caregivers to use the Internet, and what unique advantages and disadvantages of online social support caregivers identify. Caregivers were recruitment with permission of web owners through 15 websites that offer social networks to caregivers. Fifty-two surveys were analyzed using quantitative and qualitative methodologies. Caregivers spent an average of 13.2 hours per week online, including 7.5 hours engaged in activities related to caregiving. Time online did not vary significantly for caregiver groups according to age, relationship to care receiver, presence of Alzheimer's disease, or perceived importance of online social support. Caregivers of all ages, regardless of their relationship to the care receiver, placed relatively high importance on their Internet-based social support. Caregivers used the Internet predominately to expand their social network of status-similar others, to contact fellow caregivers. Participants identified psychological distress, including isolation, loneliness, and desperation, as the leading impetus for their Internet use. Results of this research led to the conclusion that Internet use can be a potential resource for caregivers in obtaining information and expanding their status-similar social support networks. Attributes of computer-mediated communication (CMC), including asynchrony and anonymity, are particularly suitable to the time and situational demands, as well as to the emotional upheavals associated with caregiving. CMC offers an exchange medium that caregivers can adapt according to individual socio/informational needs and personal preferences. However, caregivers in this study were aware of the limitations of online social support. The absence of physicality and social context cues were significant, and several caregivers longed for greater social and relational contact with online group members. Implications for caregiver online social support are offered.