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How Seniors Can Get the Most Out of  Zoom Calls | #dating | #elderly | #seniors

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Marc Agronin is a geriatric psychiatrist at Miami Jewish Health and the author of “The End of Old Age: Living a Longer, More Purposeful Life”

Stay-at-home orders and continuing social distancing have increased virtual communication among many extended families during the coronavirus pandemic. Most notably, some older adults who once viewed themselves as technological Luddites have learned to log into Zoom chats as frequently as the average teenager on Instagram or TikTok. 

And with the coronavirus pandemic on track to get much worse before it gets better, all this Zooming is likely to continue for a while. So how can an older person get the most out of these virtual connections with family, friends and health-care professionals?  

First, we should acknowledge that for many seniors, video calls and meetings on Zoom and other platforms typically have a small sensory field, limited by the size of the screen being used, the volume of the speakers and the integrity of the connection. As a result, it can be a struggle for someone with vision or hearing loss. Some people try to compensate by getting closer to the screen. Poor internet connections exacerbate sensory deficits, leading to frustration and sometimes a premature end to the call.  

What’s more, virtual meetings miss the details and nuances of facial expressions and gestures, along with the ability to touch and literally break bread together. Goodbyes are abrupt and even disorienting for many people used to a formal nod and handshake or a farewell walk to the door. 

But there are ways around many of these short-comings.

 If you typically use a small smartphone or tablet, consider some relatively inexpensive options to improve the experience. For example, there are tablet-sized portable viewing screens that can sit in front of your smartphone and create a much larger picture. There are adaptors that can project a smartphone- or tablet-sized screen onto a larger computer screen or TV monitor. There are Bluetooth external speakers that can significantly amplify the sound.

Beyond such technical improvements, there are ways to facilitate the human connection on Zoom calls. 

It helps to schedule Zoom calls and prepare for them as if you are meeting in person. Set a time with minimal distractions and write up an agenda or questions ahead of time, even if it’s a social Zoom call. These preparatory steps will enhance your discussions and show others that the meeting is important to you. They will add back some of the formality that we value in face-to-face meetings but too often get lost over virtual platforms. 

Be creative and have fun with the calls. For example, if you are Zooming with extended family members, especially children or teenagers, have interesting or colorful stories, jokes or family history to share. Play word games or charades. One of my patients selects a monthly family recipe that she cooks together with her daughter and granddaughter in their respective kitchens, all the while imparting her wisdom through instructions, stories and general advice. 

My own family schedules weekly calls that bring together different branches of the family around a designated theme and set of questions. On my great Uncle Bill’s 95th birthday, for example, we had him regale us with stories from his service during World War II and subsequent career as a Senate staffer. The video chat offered a once-in-a-lifetime visit with several dozen family members that never would have taken place in person.  

In my own psychiatric practice, I worry about the enduring impact of social isolation on homebound individuals, with loneliness and worry giving way, at times, to withdrawal and depression. The myriad connections we can forge online are potent antidotes to this isolation, and are right in front of us. As much as we can’t wait for the pandemic to pass, it’s clear that we’ve discovered an incredible silver lining that doesn’t have to end. 

You can email Dr. Agronin at reports@wsj.com.

Read the latest Encore Report.

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