Research regarding Internet use among older adults seeking health information is still relatively new. A recent ethnographic study (Harrod, 2011) was conducted in the United States to understand why older adults are using the Internet for health information and how this activity may or may not relate to their ideas about aging. The study addresses the issue of what is “health” to older adults and reveals some specific ideas about health, aging, and the use of information among older adults.
Prior research has shown a great deal about online search methods and use of online information, however, it cannot accurately uncover what motivates older adults seeking online health information, or how they may define “health” for themselves.
To find this information, Harrod spent time with eight older adult Internet users in their homes, observing them as they sought health information and then interviewed them. This method helped Harrod better understand how seeking online health information fits within an older individual’s daily life. Informal conversations took place between Harrod and study participants and were used to formulate associative meanings to their health care-seeking behavior. In addition, ideas about what it means to age in a healthy way were discovered.
The study ultimately identified several ways older adults use online health information that were previously overlooked. For instance, many older adults use the Internet to find “daily affirmations” for encouragement and support or to find information about volunteering and ways to stay active. Interestingly, the research found that these users volunteer not only because it keeps them engaged, but because they feel it is a social obligation in older age. Study participants also used the Internet as a way to find resources to maintain their independence.
Based on these findings, Harrod suggests that productivity and independence are viewed as central to healthy aging, and therefore, online “health information” included information pertaining to productivity and independence. These results suggest that ideals and cultural norms have shifted—that is, being active and socially engaged as an older adult has become significant and widely accepted.