As the government starts to slowly ease lockdown measures, elderly Australians remain in the highest risk category for contracting the deadly virus. While the rest of the country returns to normality, our elderly loved ones must continue self-isolating to protect themselves, increasing the chance of them suffering from an equally pernicious foe: loneliness.
In this article, we will explain how to maintain much needed social support for elderly people in self-isolation, so that you can help to stave off the crippling prospect of loneliness, and discover ways to improve the quality of life for the elderly.
One of the most wonderful things about technology is its ability to connect us, and the ease with which we can do so. To video call your elderly parent, you can use any number of accessible technologies that require minimal setup—Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Google Meet, Zoom, or Skype, to name a few.
Video chat is the best way to stay in contact during lockdown, because it incorporates two major communication methods: verbal (speech), and nonverbal (facial expressions and body language). In theory, the more communication methods that we have available, the better we will be able to understand each other, and the better the quality of the conversation. Subtle emotions like sarcasm can be lost in phone calls or text messages, because they’re missing the impish grin or the tongue in cheek which tells us that the other person is joking. For many people, texting has been the communication method of choice for years1, but it happens to be one of the most limited ways for us to talk to each other, missing both verbal and nonverbal communication. With video calling, you will have better conversations with your elderly parent.
On the rare occasion, you might even try to get more family members involved for a chat, gossiping about the latest news from your family tree, or reminiscing about the time your grandad dressed up as Captain Hook and accidentally terrified his jittery grandson. Video chats can be wonderful experiences for all the family, and your elderly loved one will appreciate every one of them.
Help them with technology
Technology can be frustrating even for the technically-savvy, let alone for seniors. Because technology is so important for us to stay connected in the modern world, it’s critical that you help your elderly loved one to set things up, and support them along the way. You could write them a straightforward list of instructions on how to use the most important apps, and coach them through any problems that they have.
As we grow older, our brains become less adept at shaping new memories2, so when you’re teaching your elderly parent how to use a piece of technology, it’s critical that you take your time, repeat steps if necessary, and never make them feel stupid or incapable. If they start to feel helpless and inept, they are unlikely to use the technology. To train your elderly parent effectively, you’ll need to repeatedly dip into your reserve of patience.
Buy a product specifically for video calling
If your elderly loved one does not have a computer or smartphone, there are cheaper products available that are designed specifically for video calling, with many of them easy to set up and use. Many of them look similar to tablets, including a decent-sized screen, and minimal buttons.
Amazon’s Echo Show
This device makes it easy to stay in touch with friends and family. With the right security permissions, it even has a feature where you can start a video call without the other person having to answer, making it even easier to chat to your elderly parent.
The Facebook Portal
This product from Facebook will allow you to easily call your elderly parent using the Messenger app, and have them answer directly on the device.
Google’s Nest Hub Max
Primarily a security camera, this product from Google allows you to video call people who have the Google Duo app set up.
Set a weekly schedule, and stick to it
Many of us feel comfortable with routine, it gives us a sense of control over the chaos of the universe, and makes us feel grounded. This is especially true for seniors, who slowly lose their independence as they grow older. By setting a specific schedule for contacting your elderly loved one, they will start to anticipate your phone call, and will appreciate the fact that it happens regular as clockwork. You might arrange to call them twice weekly, on Wednesday evenings at 7pm, and Saturday morning at 10am, being sure to give yourself enough time for a quality chat. You can also contact them outside the schedule too, of course.
Though social media is not without its flaws, it remains a fantastic way to stay connected to family and friends, and can be an invaluable tool for seniors to battle loneliness. Whether on Facebook, Instagram, or even Snapchat, your elderly parent will be able to browse through their feed and discover what their family and friends have been doing, interact with the content, and feel a little more connected to them. Elderly mental health can be improved through social media usage.
Having retired from the daily grind, seniors have a lot more time on their hands, which increases the risk or boredom, apathy, and loneliness. Online games can be an amusing way for them to fritter away some hours with family and friends, whether demolishing their son with a 7-word wonder in Scrabble, stealing their buddy’s knight in a game of chess, or battling the entire family in a game of virtual Trivial Pursuit. Online games can be a fantastic combination of fun and social connection.
Facebook comes in handy here too, with a large gaming component built into it. Seniors can browse the catalogue of games on offer, and play them instantly without any setup. One word of caution though—some games are incredibly addictive, and make their money through downloadable content, so you might want to warn your elderly loved one about squandering their hard-earned pension on frivolous items that they don’t need, like a virtual sheep pen brimming with fluffy merino lambs.
Pets can be wonderful companions for seniors, if they’re able to look after them. Studies have shown that people can be just as close to their pets as to their friends and family, with the animals acting as valuable sources of social support4. They’ve even shown to reduce mortality rates for seniors3. In addition to the mental health benefits of having a furry friend, dog owners are also expected to walk their animals daily, contributing to their recommended daily exercise, and helping to improve their cardiovascular health.
While there is evidence that cats and dogs can contract coronavirus, there is nothing to suggest that the virus can be passed onto humans5, reducing the number of elderly health concerns for seniors.
Check whether their community has moved online
Some seniors join community programs that allow them to forge friendships with people in their own age group. Given that physical meet-ups are banned or limited during lockdown, some of the events may have moved online until the restrictions are lifted, to continue providing social support. Do a little research to figure out whether this is the case for your elderly loved one, and encourage them to participate in the online activities, helping them along the way.
While we remain in lockdown, maintaining social support for seniors is even more important than usual, to combat the debilitating effects of elderly loneliness. Whether through scheduled video chats, social media, online games, or any other form of social connection, we can help our elderly loved ones emerge from quarantine happy, healthy, and safe.
- Frank Newport, 2014, The New Era of Communication Among Americans, Gallup
- Annie Murphy Paul, 2013, Why It’s Harder To Learn As You Get Older, Business Insider
- Clifford Singer, 2018, Health Effects of Social Isolation and Loneliness, Ageing Life Care Association
- 2011, The Truth About Cats and Dogs: Pets Are Good for Mental Health of ‘Everyday People’, American Psychological Association
- Smriti Mallapaty, 2020, Cats Can Get Coronavirus, Study Suggests–But Pet Owners Need Not Panic, Scientific American