A Virginia Tech expert in gerontology — the study of old age and the process of aging — encourages families to stay connected with their older loved ones while practicing social distancing, even as new challenges increase the complexity of staying in touch.

“Staying socially engaged is a critical part of healthy aging, and maintaining social connections combats loneliness and depression. Research has shown an association between meaningful social engagement and a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease, lower blood pressure, and sharper cognitive skills,” said Karen Roberto, a University Distinguished Professor, senior fellow at the Virginia Tech Center for Gerontology, and founding director of the Virginia Tech Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment.

“Conversely, social isolation and feelings of loneliness increase behavioral health problems, such as sleep disturbance, depressive symptoms, and fatigue in older adults,” Roberto says. “Think of positive social interactions as exercise for the mind and soul: It boosts morale, reduces risk for depression, eases anxiety, helps keep the mind alert, and puts smiles on people’s faces.”

Roberto notes that while about 70 percent of older adults report being digitally connected, their level of engagement varies not only according to personal characteristics and preferences, but also by ease of use and access. 

[More: Find additional Virginia Tech expertise related to COVID-19 here.]

“Now may be a good time to introduce older family members who have previously been resistant or uninterested in using the internet or digital technology to enhance or support communication with loved ones far and near,” she says.

For novice technology users, the key is to keep things simple, at least to start, Roberto says. Her advice includes:

  • Start from where the older adults are. Avoid technospeak, write down directions, and have them practice, practice, practice.
  • Help them schedule regular check-in times. Under typical circumstances, older adults often schedule these times to interact with their children, grandchildren, siblings, friends, and others through phone calls, email, and FaceTime or other video platforms. These remote gatherings are even more important now. Older people look forward to these interactions as they allow them to be part of their family’s and friend’s lives in real time.
  • Recognize the value of these check-in times for the loved ones of older adults too. Regularly scheduled times can give adult children and others peace of mind to be able to talk with and virtually see that their older family member or friend is doing well.
  • Understand the value of even short encounters. Brief interactions with older adults over the course of the day can be as effective as longer visits. A quick call, text, or video chat to share a funny story, ask a question, provide a reminder, comment on the day’s episode of a favorite TV show, or share a picture helps keep older people connected, even if they are unable to be in the same place as their family and friends.
  • Broaden the focus of encounters. While older adults need to stay informed about COVID-19, it isn’t helpful to have the pandemic become the primary focus of their social interactions.

“For families caring for a relative with dementia, the challenges and uncertainties associated with COVID-19 raise new concerns in their already stressful lives,” Roberto says. “Many families have come to rely on home- and community-based services — such as adult day services, respite care, home care, and transportation services — to assist them with the care of their relative. Families need to be putting in place alternative plans should these services become unavailable or reduced in response to the need for social distancing. Backup care plans also need to be made in case a home care worker or primary family caregiver becomes sick.”