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,” says 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 increases 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 a smile on people’s face.”

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 by ease of use and access. 

“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.”

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

  • “Start from where they are, avoid technospeak, write down directions, and have them practice, practice, practice.”
  • “Under typical circumstances older adults often regularly schedule ‘check-in’ time to interact with their children, grandchildren, siblings, friends, and others via phone calls, email, FaceTime and other video platforms. Now, these remote gatherings are even more important. Older people look forward to these interactions as they allow them to be part of their family’s and friend’s life in real time.
  • Conversely, it often gives 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.”
  • “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 persons connected, even if they are unable to be in the same place as their family and friends.”
  • “While older adults need to stay informed about COVID-19, what isn’t helpful is 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. 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,” Roberto says. “Families need to be putting in place alternative plans should these services become unavailable or reduced in response to the need for social distancing. Back-up care plans also need to be made in case a home care worker or primary family caregiver becomes sick.” 

About Roberto

Karen Roberto is a Virginia Tech 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. Among other research areas, she focuses specifically on the psychosocial aspects of aging, health and relationships in later life, family caregiving and Alzheimer’s disease/dementia, rural aging, and elder abuse and neglect. See her bio

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