Real Communication in These Pandemic Holidays (There’s a Magic Ingredient)

The darkest months of the year are upon us, and across the millennia, we humans have typically responded with lights, feasting, gatherings, and cheer. Grab a drink, share a hug, chase the darkness.

But of course, this year is different. This year most of us are trying our best to safeguard our loved ones and neighbors by keeping our distance. Virtual connections have taken center stage as we use technology to bridge the distance. But what’s the best way to use these tools? And what if the people we are most concerned about, maybe older relatives living alone, are digitally disconnected?

Dr. Joseph Walther is a professor of communication and director of the Center for Information Technology and Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research in communication via computers suggests that, whatever our technology, the key ingredient is “interactivity.”

“Interactivity means that a conversation develops as it progresses. It reflects what each person has said, and then it goes deeper,” he explained. “It’s those conversations where we listen to one another, we build on one another, and we validate each other. We let one another know we were heard, and that it means something.”

Communicating with Offline Folks

Research shows that Americans communicate very differently depending on age. Those born before 1945 (the “Silent Generation”) present a particular challenge. They’re more likely to live alone, but also less likely to be connected to digital technology. Loneliness–already a big problem with this age group–will ramp up over the next few months.

Professionals in senior care recommend old-school phone calls for connecting to this group. Phone calls provide space for a back-and-forth exchange, and seniors are comfortable and confident with the technology. Experts also recommend planning phone calls in advance and keeping a schedule, as it gives seniors something to look forward to and reduces surprises (which can be confusing).

Of course, don’t discount the value of snail mail for non-digital folks. Frequent cards or letters, while not interactive, help people feel recognized and remembered. They’re something tangible to put on a counter or fridge, and they have staying power. Many of our elders cherish letters from across the years. Let yours become part of their collection.

Also, it’s easier now than ever to send both necessities and niceties to people. Think about splitting a holiday gift into several smaller shipments over the winter to prolong that contact.

Connecting Seniors and Kids

Phone calls are really important for seniors who can’t connect face-to-face, yet it’s always been a challenge to find common conversational ground between seniors and kids. Extending the phone to your teen and hissing, “Talk to Grandma!” does not cut it.

To bridge the gulf, create some structure around the call. Younger kids can read a story over the phone, or play one round of 20 Questions. For older kids, check out resources that will help you make a list of conversational questions. Pick one for an easy five-minute exchange.

This might seem a bit forced or awkward at first, but that goes away after a few calls. It won’t take long for your format to become normal, and then it will become a tradition. Keep it brief. Say “I love you” and good-bye. Great Aunt Florence doesn’t want to talk to you forever. She just wants to connect with you more frequently and meaningfully.

If you feel you can’t increase the frequency of your calls, and you’re worried about these challenging winter months, consider engaging a phone call service or volunteer group to make contact. And if you’re considering a new phone or device for an elder, review advice from experts working in this field (and be open to becoming the tech support person in your relationship).

Getting the Most Out of Technology

More options open up for older folks with digital access. Email is very popular among older citizens. Use it frequently to send a quick note, online cards, or photos. Kids can send something as simple as a one-line caption on a drawing, or a photo of them putting away their laundry (ha!). Seriously–any silly, simple thing that reflects your real-life will help a distant senior feel more connected to your day.

Of course, video conferencing (e.g., Zoom, Google Meet, Skype) has become the pandemic default for everything, from romantic dates to classes to family time. And it’s a great resource, no doubt. But multi-person calls can seem cacophonous and confusing to older people. They are also more tiring than old-school phone calls.

Research explains that Zoom wipes us out because our brains are wired to pay very close attention to faces. In real-life interactions, we give each other personal space, shift our gaze, and have sidebar conversations. But in a Zoom call, we are literally in each other’s faces, and it’s too much eye contact with too many people all at once.

So keep the larger family Zoom calls brief. Here again, some structure can be helpful. Set up mini-performances or readings by grandkids, or round-robins that have a theme–maybe the earliest gift you can each remember, or the biggest snowstorm, or a funny memory. Follow up with a basic phone call. You can answer questions your elder might have about the kids (what did Alyssa do to her hair?) or just give them the opportunity to rehash the topics.

Smaller Zoom groups can be good for cooking, crafts, or playing games together. It really depends on your participants. But always be aiming for interaction and participation. If your group is too big for a senior to participate meaningfully, reduce your numbers, or make sure you are communicating in other ways also.

Look for other interactive options geared towards seniors too, like online book clubs and discussion groups, interactive games, or online citizen science projects (lots of good options for seniors).

Co-watching options like Teleparty are a low-key way to spend time together. They allow you to sync up streaming services like Netflix and chat in a sidebar while watching. This is how I watch The Crown with Nana, and it does kind of feel like you’re hanging out together.

Pros and Cons of Social Media

Over the past decade or so, lots of research has been done on the impact of social media in teens’ lives. It’s impossible to generalize across age groups, genders, psychological background, and online activity; however, very broadly speaking, it seems that social media is positive for teens who already have strong relationships, but it can have negative effects on those who are lonely or socially isolated to begin with.

So far, very few studies have looked at how social media might affect seniors’ feelings of loneliness or isolation. Similar to adolescents, one study among seniors did find that “higher problematic social media use was associated with higher perceived social isolation.”

Other research suggests social media can be helpful if it is interactive, with one study highlighting online communities “as places where people can get together and engage in social contact, e.g. overcome loneliness at nighttime and receive up-to-date information on family members and acquaintances.”

So by all means, encourage and assist your elder with social media use, but remember that one-sided interaction (lots of social media scrolling or YouTube) can be depleting and depressing.

What About Younger People That Might Be At-Risk?

We’ve focused on the needs of seniors here, because in general they are more hindered by their circumstances in this pandemic. But isolation, depression, and suicide have no age boundaries.

Overall in the US, the suicide rate is up 33 percent since 1999 (from 10.5 to 14 suicides per 100,000 people). The rate is highest among middle-aged, white men, and white men as a group accounted for almost 70% of all suicides in 2018. There are many factors feeding this US trend, but increased isolation seems to be a big contributor.

The strategies outlined here for older folks will work for any age group, with some tweaking. The idea is to reach out frequently through various channels–texts, phone calls, Zoom–and to aim for real conversations, with real listening, validation, and response. (If you are at all concerned about a loved one and suicide, review the warning signs and/or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.)

This sounds time-consuming, but it’s really not if you mix up your outreach tools: a text string with jokes or memes, a 10-minute FaceTime call while you make coffee before work, a 30-minute Sunday Zoom while co-watching a sporting event. Add these conversations to what you are already doing–watching TV, making food, walking the dog. And remember that real communication “doesn’t all have to happen face-to-face,” explains Dr. Walther, “or even in real-time.”

What It All Means

With a little bit of foresight, intentionality, and planning, you can stay meaningfully connected during this distanced winter, even without face-to-face gatherings. Regardless of the circumstances, relationships take time and effort, but technology really can help. And who knows? You just might find yourself talking to people more than you normally would, and maybe enjoying it more, too.

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kate gavaghan

kate gavaghan

Publisher/writer at SciInTheTri.org. Constantly falling down the research rabbit hole. Former-and-yet-eternal math & science teacher. MS Public Policy.