Visiting in the digital age

Today, there are many ways to stay in touch with the elders we love. That’s a good thing because research suggests that older adults who are socially engaged enjoy greater happiness and a sense of purpose. Those who are isolated and lonely are at a higher risk of depression, heart disease, obesity, and Alzheimer’s.

But not all the options for connecting are equal.

Face-to-face exchanges are the best. Meeting in person engages many of our senses—vision, hearing, touch, and smell. Plus, being in the same space together and sharing an occasion deepens our sense of connection.

Other media don’t match up. Phones, email, texting, social media … each has its advantages. But older adults who rely on these media have the same rates of depression as those who don’t connect with others.

Video chatting is the exception! In a study of 1,400 older adults, those using apps such as Skype and FaceTime were half as likely to be depressed as those using other media. The visual feedback and “real time” interactions seem to offer many of the benefits of a face-to-face visit. For example, “When I video chat, I get to see my grandchild,” or “On email, no one gets my jokes.”

More ways to video chat. A focus group of seniors analyzed Amazon Echo Show, the latest video-chatting option of the Alexa digital assistant. It received extremely favorable reviews. They loved the simplicity of saying “Call John.”

The downsides. Getting your relative set up may present the biggest obstacle. Your loved one may need help downloading an app and learning to operate a mobile device. Or he or she may need help uploading contacts. Or balk about privacy and the security of data.

There’s nothing to equal the value of a face-to-face visit. But if you can’t visit often, consider frequent video chatting as your next-best alternative.