I recently re-introduced my 85-year-old Grandma to email. She had once used it for a while, but increasingly sporadic use meant we needed a refresher session on using the internet and her email provider. This return to email was partly prompted by the Christchurch earthquake last February. With phone lines not working, she was unable to directly contact her cousin who lived there and sending an email became the next best option.

I hope that using email more frequently will strengthen her capacity to stay connected to family and younger friends – it has often been observed that rapid change in communications can leave many people feeling left behind. Another granddaughter (my cousin) has recently moved to Washington DC so any news or messages can now be gained personally, rather than via other relatives who are online.

Admittedly, there has already been one unseen disadvantage to this greater use of email, as she now emails – rather than telephoning or visiting – another computer-savvy friend who lives just round the corner!

This new-found interest in computers has in turn sparked my interest in how the internet can enable older people to stay connected and build relationships, both old and new. It is fitting that I write this during Age UK’s ‘iTea and Biscuits’ week and there has been a flurry of news stories and Twitter activity on this very topic. My favourite discoveries so far include:

Internet Buttons: Created by We Are What We Do in partnership with Race Online 2012 and Age UK, this is a webtool that makes using the internet easier by creating an homepage of personalised buttons  for chosen sites and services. In their own words: “9.2 million people in the UK alone are offline, and 6.4 million of them are over 65. Yet 90% of communication between 11-18 years olds is digital. Internet Buttons aims to overcome this growing divide.”

FinerDay: Designed and run by the same creative people who run the excellent ‘Adopt a Care Home’ scheme, Finerday is an accessible family and friends network for sharing messages, photos and memories. The creators felt everyone should be able to share photos, messages and memories regardless of age. You don’t even need to have an email address to begin.

The effectiveness of technology and the internet to reduce social isolation and loneliness however does, in the words of Professor Mima Cattan,“remain ambiguous”. Indeed, one of the main benefits of getting my grandma on email has been spending more time with her in person. A recent review conducted in 2010 by Independent Age and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation found something similar, as participants in a technology training initiative reported they benefited from greater social interaction the training itself provided.

So there is great potential for technology to improve social connections in older age. Indeed, next time I blog, my Grandma may even be on Facebook….