Keeping the elderly connected, while staying apart
YOU’VE all seen the images by now. The tearful, yet uplifting images of small children, emergency laws or other regulations permitting, waving at their coronavirus cocooned grandparents through glass windows and doors.
Hugs are the currency of choice between grandparents and grandchildren, it has always been thus. And alienating our older brethren through strict social distancing, albeit to protect them and other vulnerable cohorts in our midst – including those of all ages with underlying health conditions – is one of the many cruelties inflicted by Covid-19.
With many authorities around the world, including the British Government, warning that the over 70s may have to practice stringent social distancing for an indefinite period of time, avoiding face-to-face contact, how can we ensure that the global Covid-19 pandemic doesn’t become an epidemic of loneliness too?
A silver lining
How do we ensure that these much loved citizens, many of whom still cling to landlines at home and don’t rely on smart technology devices to stay in touch, take advantage of the virtual revolution – with its promise of deep connection – that may yet be Covid-19’s silver lining?
It’s not just the elderly. Last month, as the coronavirus deepened its grip on the globe, experts warned in the leading medical journal, The Lancet, of the psychological impacts of quarantine, with most studies reporting negative consequences including post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion and anger.
“Having a working mobile phone is now a necessity, not a luxury,” said the rapid review’s authors, who stated that activating your social network, albeit remotely, is not just a key priority. An inability to do so, the review warned, is associated not just with immediate anxiety, but longer term distress.
“Providing those quarantined with mobile phones, cords and outlets for charging devices, and robust WiFi networks with internet access to allow them to communicate directly with loved ones could reduce feelings of isolation, stress, and panic”.
Staying connected whilst staying apart has never been easier and fast evolving mobile and digital technologies can help maintain emotional proximity whilst observing social distance.
“Voice and video over IP services like Zoom and Skype can help a lot,” says Maria Farrell, the London based writer and tech policy consultant who has worked for ICANN, the World Bank, the International Chamber of Commerce, the Confederation of British Industry and The Law Society of England and Wales.
“If you’re in the world of work, you use this stuff all the time, but by definition many people who are elderly and unwell are often not already using them, so those of us already using them – and the many substitutes – will have to be patient and provide helpful tech support to get them up and running so we can stay in touch”.
Farrell also says the internet can be used to ensure the elderly participate, online, in activities they might otherwise enjoy.
“Plug relatives into religious services, Mass online, playing bridge online with friends – those kinds of uses will really help, so it’s not all ‘hi how are you?’ but just doing things together. For those a bit more tech-savvy already, stuff like the Chrome browser plug in ‘Netflix party‘ that helps you cue up and watch the same movie simultaneously, will help”.
In the silence before the Covid-19 surge, we are experiencing a cacophony of creativity online. The digital outpouring has been led by frontline medics, educators, employers, families and others who are deploying technology and the cloud to create, connect and collaborate as they overcome the physical and geographical distances between them.
They include multiple jurisdiction video conferences between doctors and nurses sharing in-time data and insights. There are the social distancing choir practices, cloud clubbing, virtual exercise classes, Skype book clubs and global parties facilitated by platforms such as Covideo and TikTok.
Keep an eye out, too, for the innovation that is emerging from the younger, role-playing community – think of fantasy games played by millions worldwide such as Fortnite and Dungeons and Dragons – to see what might work socially and culturally in this new world order.
At its best, we are, in the midst of this pandemic, seeing the internet used for the ultimate social good. That doesn’t mean we don’t have to be careful, particularly for the elderly who may be more susceptible than most to cyberattacks, misinformation and a breathtaking range of frauds and scams.
Farrell cautions that there are major pitfalls to be avoided, even – and especially – when the cry of the emergency is raised by governments and others who may not want to let a good crisis go to waste.
“Beware of tech companies bearing gifts,” she says. “Nothing comes for free, and once our personal and health data is in the wild, it will be used – often to our personal and families’ detriment – for the rest of our lives.
“We must require full transparency of data-sharing deals with companies. If governments believe extraordinary measures are justified, then telling us about them is justified, too.”
Previous pandemics, such as the 1918 ‘Spanish Flu’, changed the course of history and society, fundamentally altering how we think, work and how we live too. Only time will tell if Covid-19 propels us to a life lived online, but something makes me suspect that there will never be a substitute for that essence of human interaction. Mobile connectivity in the short term will undoubtedly help and at Ding we are working with our partners to make this possible.
 See https://www.thelancet.com/action/showPdf?pii=S0140-6736%2820%2930460-8