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Using Technology to Stay Social While Physically Distancing

elderly woman eating breakjfast while on a video call

Even before the current COVID-19 pandemic, many older adults experienced widespread social isolation and loneliness. Physical distancing is a new challenge that’s creating or worsening loneliness for many. Isolation can hurt both our physical and mental health. Here’s the good news—we can still connect, even as we stay at least six feet apart. Technology can be a powerful tool to help us feel close to our loved ones.

Qian Tu, a 2020 alumna of the UW School of Nursing Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program, created a depression toolkit for her DNP project, which involved researching depression prevention and reduction. She found that “Social interaction can help decrease depression. The interaction doesn’t even have to be face to face.” She found one intervention program in the scientific literature that helps to reduce participants’ depression by having them video conference with family or friends once a week for 10 weeks.

Even with all the benefits that they can provide, learning new technologies can be a challenge. The good news is that there are many resources to help, some specifically tailored to older adults.

Getting access to electronics and the Internet

If you or someone you know is having trouble using technology because of lack of Internet access, Comcast and Washington State have opened up public hotspots where you can connect to the Internet for free. Additionally, people who already own a smartphone should be able to access the Internet on it, if that is part of their phone plan. To add it or check if it’s already part of your plan, call your cell phone service provider to discuss options.

If money is a barrier, there are programs and discounts to help low-income individuals set up wireless Internet at home. The City of Seattle maintains a webpage listing discounted Internet plans. Two of the discount plans are offering two months free, in the light of the current pandemic, for individuals who apply before the end of June: Internet Essentials through Comcast (1-855-846-8376) and Internet First through Wave (1-866-923-3123).

Internet Essentials customers can also get a discounted refurbished laptop (1-888-234-4272). Additionally, Interconnection offers discounted computers for low-income individuals. You can order from Interconnection on their website, and contact them with any questions via phone (206-633-1517 x 124) or e-mail (support@interconnection.org).

Using video call software

If you have reliable Internet access, you might be interested in tackling video calls. Right now, Zoom is a very popular video conferencing software. Many organizations hold virtual events over Zoom. A great way to get started is to call a friend or family member and ask if they have experience with Zoom and would willing to talk you through it.

Alternatively, Senior Planet—which has many classes and materials to help older adults learn basic technology during coronavirus—offers an online guide for Zoom, with helpful pictures. After you know how to join a Zoom call, the Greenwood Senior Center holds Zoom Practice Sessions every Tuesday morning, where you can practice using the software and ask questions in a low-stakes setting. If you feel like you have that figured out, Senior Planet also offers numerous Zoom classes, including many on how to use different types of technology.

Even without a computer, you should be able to call into a Zoom meeting using your phone. If you know about a virtual event or have loved ones meeting up in Zoom, see if you can call in. Typically, whoever sets the meeting up can give you a phone number and extension (a “Meeting ID,” and sometimes a password) that you can use to call into the Zoom meeting. You won’t have access to the video but will be able to participate through the audio.

If you have an iPhone that’s logged into an Apple account, you can also use the FaceTime video call feature with others who have an iPhone. Check if the person you want to video chat with can use FaceTime. If they do, when you view their phone contact, there should be a camera icon, named “FaceTime”; click there to invite someone to a video call.

Online videos

You can find a range of videos and tutorials if you navigate to the YouTube.com website. YouTube has free videos on almost any topic you can imagine—often, multiple videos about the same thing—making it an invaluable tool as you navigate new technologies. Use the search bar to ask a question, such as “How to use Zoom” or “How to order groceries online.” By watching multiple videos on the same topic, you can hear it explained in different ways and get unique tips from different people.

While YouTube is a fairly safe website, make sure to follow safe Internet practices: never provide sensitive information (such as your bank account or Social Security number) and don’t click on links from sources you don’t trust.

Navigating visual and hearing impairment

For people with visual or hearing impairments, Shaoqing Ge, a Doris Carnevali Engaging with Aging Post-Doctoral fellow at the UW School of Nursing who studies sensory loss in older adults, has a few suggestions. “For older adults who cannot hear or see well, consider using technologies to improve your stay-at-home experience. For example, a speech-to-text app may be of great help if you cannot hear well while talking to your grandkids via Skype. If you need additional reading assistance beyond your glasses, both Windows and Mac systems can read text out loud from your computer screen. Consider getting a Google Home Smart Speaker or Amazon Echo Dot—you can ask them aloud about the news and weather. You can have them call your friend or put on your favorite music, too.”

National Tech Hotline

Have technology difficulties and not sure who can help? Senior Planet’s National Tech Hotline (920-666-1959) offers over-the-phone technology support to older adults on weekdays between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. (Eastern Time). You can also connect with one of their trainers over e-mail at membership@seniorplanet.org.


Contributor Paige Bartlett is a public information specialist at UW School of Nursing’s de Tornyay Center for Healthy Aging. For more information, visit agingcenter.org or e-mail agingctr@uw.edu.

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