Social Distancing Lures More Seniors Across the Digital Divide
To find a paradox in senior well-being, we need look no further than today! We know that staying socially connected is vital for the mental health of seniors. And yet, social distancing is the key ingredient to help them avoid the coronavirus.
Not long after social distancing began, we quickly saw news articles about older adults taking to Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, Facebook Messenger and other platforms to keep in touch virtually with children, grandchildren and friends. No, it’s not the same as an in-person visit and a big hug—not by a long shot. But it’s the next best thing, and it comes without the risk of infection.
For this reason, experts report, more older adults than ever are crossing the long-time “digital divide” to get online. They’re using computers, tablets and smartphones for video chats, email and social networking. Many have gone on Facebook for the first time—because that’s where family and friends are congregating. They’re connecting with their doctors and other providers through telehealth.
And once online, they’re likely to stay there. Senior tech blogger Lori Orlov muses, “Could the 2020 catastrophe be the catalyst to boost tech use up to 90% among all older adult segments, at home or in senior living, propelling adoption of telehealth forward for older adults?” Many experts say yes—there’s no looking back.
Are you prepared for digital caregiving?
Many seniors in senior living communities are receiving assistance from staff to communicate with loved ones these days—probably only the beginning, predict many experts, who think elder care facilities will be more “wired” in the future. But when seniors live at home or in independent senior living, their new embrace of digital communications can be a large addition to the workload of family!
It’s a myth that seniors aren’t computer-savvy. Many are. But many others came late to the game. Formerly intimidated or not interested, they’ve now taken the plunge—and it’s not an easy learning curve! Computer technology is complicated and ever-evolving. It’s hard enough for many younger people, for whom computers are second nature, to keep up!
“In a world where many everyday activities have moved online, caregivers face a new challenge: finding a balance between autonomy and protection of care recipients,” said Northwestern University associate professor Anne Marie Piper. “Technological caregiving is a new form of work. We hear about the physical, financial and social stress of caregiving, but no one ever talks about the burden caregivers feel to keep people active online, which we feel is a fundamental part of participating in society.”
Here are things families should consider as they help older loved ones navigate a new world of connectivity:
Designate a tech-support family member. Maybe you’re not so computer-savvy yourself? Who is your go-to person when something crashes? Perhaps a granddaughter or nephew is particularly skilled — and patient. Ask if they will sign on to help your senior relative. Many intergenerational connections are enriched in this very way. Pick someone who you think can communicate and explain things well.
Choose the right technology for your loved one’s needs. If you’re selecting a computer, tablet or phone for your loved one, remember that the more bells and whistles the device has, the more intimidating it can be to learn to use it. Buy from a company that can help you make an informed choice. If your loved one has disabilities such as visual impairment or arthritis, learn about hardware and software accessibility features to help them navigate and read. And if you’re the go-to tech support person, having the same operating systems (PC vs. Mac, iPhone vs. Android) is a good idea. The same goes for apps your loved one may be wanting to use, as you may be called upon to help with those.
Suggest that your loved one sign up for an online computer class. Many computer “problems” stem from a user’s unfamiliarity with features of their devices and programs. This is far from a seniors-only challenge, and many organizations and companies offer computer training, but your loved one may be most comfortable in a senior-focused class. Check out the offerings through your local library, senior center, Senior Planet or the AARP. If your loved one lives in a senior living community, ask what they recommend.
Be there when you can’t be there. It’s hard to help when you can’t see what’s happening. With your loved one’s permission, install remote access software to view and control their computer from afar. (In person or remotely, resist the temptation to overdo it while you’re logged in by making “helpful” changes to their organization system or desktop icons that will be confusing and NOT helpful!)
Create a mini user guide. You have a pretty good idea about what your folks want to do with their devices, and how much they know. As you walk them through the tasks they’ll often be doing, write down step-by-step instructions to serve as a cheat sheet until they have it down, or suggest that they do so.
Be sure their antivirus software is kept up to date. The criminals who create viruses and malware release new ones nonstop, so it’s vital to always have the latest updates to identify and block malicious intrusions. (While you’re at it, warn them about “scareware”—the ubiquitous fake antivirus programs that pop up and trick users into buying unneeded software or downloading a harmful program.)
Have the safety and security talk. Antivirus software can’t ward off all intruders. Just as you install the software, you’ll also need to install a bit of skepticism as your loved ones venture online. Warn them about protecting their personal information and to not click on suspicious links. They should know that scammers might hijack a friend’s email … or pretend to be from Microsoft or the IRS or Medicare … or even, in the case of the infamous Grandma Scam, pretend to be you! It can sound pretty scary, but it’s empowering to be in the know. Establish a “no question is too dumb” policy: Tell them it’s fine to call you if something doesn’t seem right.
Call in a professional. If computer help isn’t your thing — maybe you need it as much as your loved one does, or you don’t have the time or temperament for the task — check out tech support services that charge an hourly rate or an annual subscription fee. These services have been likened to roadside assistance for your computer. Help can be provided in the store, or technicians can remote in to remove a virus, tune up a computer or help with app installation. Some services cater to senior clients, with technicians who are familiar with the learning style of older adults.
Providing tech support for a senior loved one isn’t a small thing, as many caregivers know. But it pays off in helping your loved one stay connected and engaged, a huge advantage for your loved one at this time. It’s truly a labor of love.