For some older immigrants, 'the Internet is everything'

There’s a growing body of evidence that the Internet can be an empowering tool for marginalized populations, and a recent study tells some striking stories of how it’s been used by one uniquely isolated community.

In the early 1990s, when Gorbachev reopened the borders of the declining Soviet Union, many thousands of Russian Jews fled to Israel, where there were no restrictions against Jewish immigration.

For many of the older immigrants, now in their 60s, the transition was never fully realized, and a population of mostly highly educated Soviet professionals found themselves depressed, living in poverty, cut off from the past, and isolated by a new language and culture.

But some of them found the Internet.

According to a study at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, elderly immigrants there are using the Internet to better navigate their current homes and communicate with loved ones. But they’re also using it to reinvigorate their lives and pull themselves out of an otherwise deep sense of isolation.

In the words of one subject, “For me the Internet is everything. Without it I am nothing.”

The study was limited by a non-random sample of 34 immigrants, because the researchers had to track down relevant subjects, but the anecdotes are very moving.

The most practical uses involve simple medical help. And, as for many grandparents, it allows them to interact with their families affordably. They tell stories of leaving Skype open all day to spend time with grandkids, and learning to play online games with them.

For many of the former intellectual elites, they’ve used the Internet to revive intellectual pursuits that were all but lost when they left the Soviet Union. The man quoted above, at 88, has found Russian science websites where he can publish articles and exchange feedback.

But study participants have also found avenues to overcome a social isolation unique to their circumstances — the feeling of being from a time and place that are distant and lost to history in some ways.

I surf the websites of Volgograd and Leningrad. Because these are the places I miss the most. I look at the views of the city. I try to find those streets I know, images of houses that I am familiar with. This gives me a feeling of presence and kind of a sad happiness. (Svetlana, 68, 1996)

I installed Google Earth on my computer. Now I click the name of a city and pictures of different places appear on the screen. […] I have my entire life in these photographs. I have collected about 600 pictures, put them in the slide show in chronological order and I play it while drinking tea. (Lev, 72, 1991)

From a fallen empire, and the last generation to remember the holocaust, their home is more than geographically remote; in many ways it no longer exists. So in online communities they exchange photos, testimonials and stories of the past, piecing together personal histories, and history of a world that must seem so recent to them, but so distant to their physical neighbors.

For each of the participants involved, there are no doubt others who loathe computers, and would much rather read books or flip through photo albums. And there’s ongoing debate about the depth of interactions we can really create over computer.

For those sharing their anecdotes, it’s clearly had a life-changing effect.

Sometimes I am in such a terrible mood, that I’d rather lay myself into the coffin. In this situation I go to the ‘Russian Israel’ website. There you can find everything you want: anecdotes, aphorisms. This is how I begin to contain my grief. Sometimes I might listen to a song, or watch a video. That’s how I calm myself down.

Reference: ‘Without it I am nothing’: The internet in the lives of older immigrants, Natalia Khvorostianov, Nelly Elias, Galit Nimrod, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel