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Long-Distance Family Communications: The Role of Technology

In this time of increased mobility, the extended family is becoming more extended than ever. Approximately 10% of the population moved in one recent year. California has one of the highest moving rates in the country.

One striking fact is that most people in the U.S. don’t move in order to be closer to family, even in retirement. In areas with large retirement populations, such as California and Florida, large numbers of seniors have no family nearby at all.

The implications of this fact can be daunting when health issues arise. Social isolation can become a reality for many older adults, particularly those who are homebound or frail. Coordination of health and other service needs can be complicated as well.

In a recent blog post, Laurie Orlov explores the relative benefits of using alternatives to face-to-face communications. She cites a recent study by Dr. Alan Teo, who found that the incidence of depression in seniors is reduced with “in person” contact with friends and family members, as compared to phone contacts or email. It should be noted that the study did not compare Skype usage or texting, however. Seniors who met with close contacts at least three times per week, had almost half the incidence of depression as those who did not interact with friends or relatives frequently.

A review of Teo’s study raises several questions about access to technology, from smartphones to automobiles. Is failure to have regular contact due to such factors as lack of transportation or technological aptitude? Orlov, an expert in aging in place technology, suggests that we should not rush to rule out the harnessing of technology for greater family connectivity.

Orlov encourages carriers and the FCC to look at ways in which to provide older adults with better access to and increased proficiency with Skyping, texting, and even You-tubing family members. She notes that FCC’s recommendation that data plan costs be lowered for low-income adults and points to tech training workshops by groups such as AARP. Lower costs of tablets and senior-friendly phones are other signs of progress.

A Pew report last year found that the number of adults aged 65 and older who use smartphones is rising. But more than 70% still do not, and more basic phones may be a better option for some.

For those of us who work in the caregiving field, we know the value of regular family contact. But in our far flung world of family connections, we must be prepared to assist older adults in finding and using both basic and tech-savvy alternatives to a loved one’s hug.

NOTE: Photo courtesy of

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