For most people this wouldn’t be a big deal. Our lives are full of activities: work or family commitments, social interactions, exercise, fun, volunteer work — all the things that keep us happy, stimulated and focused outwardly. If bored, we can go for a drive, head to the mall or take in a movie.
But these cancellations are a huge disappointment for my father, now living by himself since my mother died six months ago. He no longer drives at night, and lives 20–30 minutes away from the closest city (an hour-plus to Boston, which is largely out of reach these days.) Leaving home for social contact in a coffee shop is a big deal, which largely constrains him to a breakfast/sandwich shop a couple of miles away.
Macular degeneration prevents him from reading the Boston Globe or library books the way he used to on snowbound days.
He’s lonely, compared to his former life, but not truly alone.
He is blessed with many children and grandchildren, some of whom live nearby. His nearby family members are extremely generous with their time and attention to his well-being. He sees one daughter almost daily, and has frequent in-person contact with other local family members. Those of us who live thousands of miles away stay in touch by phone, email or Facebook, or the occasional Skype video chat.
Lonely, Coping with Silence
Compared to many elders, Dad is not alone or isolated, if you look at things from a factual or rational basis.
But his emotional truth says otherwise. He’s lonely, and may go hours without hearing the sound of another human voice. My sister’s aging dog is his most frequent companion during the day.
He lives alone, in a separate household on my sister’s property out in the country. My parents moved there when they were no longer able to live independently in their own home. His living quarters are spacious, but he is a 20-minute drive from the town where he spent the past 40-something years of his life. There’s no one within walking distance to talk to, during daytime hours when his children and grandchildren are away at work or attending classes. This winter he is coping with “cabin fever.”
He is starved for what he thinks of as intellectual conversation: chances to talk about a movie, last week’s sermon at church, an Obama speech, or a book he is reading on his Kindle. He finds few occasions to share moments of creativity (a new poem, a favorite photo or a special prayer, a childhood memory written down as a story). Conversation and laughter — things that were easy when his wife was alive — are no longer simple, and rarely spontaneous.
Social Technology for Seniors
Unlike most senior citizens who came of age during World War II, Dad is pretty tech savvy. He started using a computer in his early sixties, and has twenty years of hands-on experience as a Mac user.
As a computer-savvy senior, he believed he could easily find a web-based solution for social interactions with other housebound seniors. So he spent yesterday online, looking for practical senior-friendly solutions.
His mission was to find an affordable online service that would enable his church group members to meet virtually on days when weather or medical appointment conflicts prevent face-to-face group meetings. He’d heard about WebEx, and had previously used Adobe Connect at his daughter’s expense. He uses Facebook to stay in touch with grandchildren, so he understands what might be possible with community platforms.
He failed to find anything that he thought would meet the needs of his group of seniors…
What was he looking for? [I’ve translated his requirements.]
- An online meeting environment that would allow multiple people to talk to each other, and comment on what they were seeing on-screen
- A meeting environment that would enable them to hear each other’s voice in real time, and support a natural conversation flow
- A means of transcribing or recording the conversation, for people who cannot attend the original online meeting
- A means of looking at, commenting on, collaborating on documents, such as a prayer my father had just written
- An online place to manage a stream of comments
- An easy way to find other like-minded people, interested in talking about similar subjects
- A way to manage group membership and privacy, so groups wouldn’t necessarily be open to all-comers (for example, restricted to members of the same church or senior center) — a place where they wouldn’t feel bullied by people who work at a faster or more aggressive pace
- Keen attention to accessibility, so seniors with hearing or vision challenges could adjust the on-screen audio or visual presentation
- Superlative usability for seniors who are far less comfortable with computers than my dad
Not surprisingly, his search was pretty fruitless.
Pricing Models Don’t Fit Senior Budgets
Software that might offer usability models that wouldn’t intimidate senior citizens is generally priced for enterprise budgets — way out of reach for seniors living on retirement savings or paltry pensions. Have you ever seen online pricing with special options for senior citizens or nonprofits?
The free stuff tended to underwhelm him, due to complexities or usability gaps. His take was that set-up and support would require on-going help by a tech savvy younger person who knows how to talk to his elders without being arrogant or condescending. He lacked confidence that they could find volunteers willing to help a bunch of oldsters like him.
He had a hard time believing his church would be open to even thinking about sponsoring online meetings, for fear it would further deplete attendance by aging congregations on Sunday mornings. (We chatted a bit about disruptive innovations, and the fears of powerful incumbents… But that’s another story.)
Our Under-served Elders
The irony is, seniors who feel lonely, isolated, lack stimulation or intellectual challenge are easily prone to depression or illness. They become vulnerable when they lose their sense of well-being or feel they can no longer contribute in meaningful ways to a community.
So they’ll go on yet another set of meds, or decline to the point where they need medical intervention — which will cost taxpayers even more money to subsidize Medicare and Medicaid.
These are our parents and grandparents. Surely they deserve better.
One day we’ll be in their shoes too… By that time I sure hope society has figured out ways for seniors to connect, to chat, to share — even when housebound due to bad weather or failing health.