We’re all practicing social distancing to help curb the growing coronavirus pandemic, but while the rest of us hop on Zoom to stay in touch with friends, one group is particularly vulnerable and isolated: seniors.

And, of course, social distancing is especially important for seniors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, older adults are among the most at-risk groups for developing serious cases of, or complications from, COVID-19.

But with Easter and Passover coming up, finding a way to bridge that distance is an acute need right now, too.

Really, this is more than just about the holidays: “We want to practice social distancing, but not social isolation,” says Jacklyn Isasi, communications director for the AARP’s Pennsylvania State Office. Social isolation among seniors, she adds, was common even before the pandemic. In a 2020 study published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, about 43% of adults aged 60 and older reported feeling lonely — an element of mental health that can exacerbate existing health conditions.

So now is the time to figure out how to get your older parents, grandparents, friends, and relatives comfortable with video calling. Though it may seem complicated or intimidating to some, it doesn’t have to be. Here is what you need to know:

Why video calling is actually better

It’s all about connection.

While a simple phone call may suffice to check in, video calling could be a more effective way to help people from feeling isolated, and check to see how they are doing. Which is reassuring for everyone.

The Philadelphia Corporation for Aging — a nonprofit that has served as Philadelphia County’s Area Agency on Aging since 1973 — currently stresses that video calls should be the first way that caregivers get in touch, communications manager Kerith Gabriel says.

And it’s not just for check-ins with you. Once they’re comfortable using the tech, they will have access to a lot of the resources that we’re all using to get through this too: staying connected with friends and community, being able to participate in virtual events, online book clubs, and video lunch dates — some of the “things we need to stay connected,” Isasi says.

Understanding why it’s hard

Despite its usefulness, it can be hard to get older relatives comfortable with the concept and the tech, which can be frustrating for everyone. But understanding why is the first step to helping people overcome their fear or lack of experience.

The Philadelphia-based national nonprofit Generations on Line, which has been working to help older adults with digital literacy for two decades, identifies three big obstacles: access, skill, and intimidation.

Access issues, founder and CEO Tobey Gordon Dichter says, include forgotten passwords and troubles with initial setup. Solution: Go with the most user-friendly solution available (not just what you’re using) or help them set up a new account.

Problems with skill, meanwhile, may be rooted in embarrassment over needing certain technical concepts explained several times. Solution: Be patient, go slowly, go one step at a time, and don’t get frustrated.

And finally, some older adults may just be intimidated by what they perceive as a complicated process. Those issues can be solved with some patience and forethought.

“You have to change the perception that this is not as intimidating and complex as you might think,” Dichter says. “Reduce frustration, and increase the speed at which they could have success.”

One solution: Pre-install necessary applications on a device like a tablet or smartphone, and mail or drop off the device to their older loved one. Or send a short set of clear instructions or screengrabbed images of what they should see. And remember: The motivation is there.

“The motivation to see family is huge,” Dichter says. “Work it through and see how many steps there are. Say, ‘Granny, I am going to tell you three things to do, and once you do those three things, you are going to see me.'”

Choosing the right app

If your relative has an iPhone or iPad, FaceTime may be the best option. It comes preinstalled on those devices, and is almost the same as answering a phone call. One caveat: You can only initiate calls with someone if the contact they’re looking for is also an Apple user that has FaceTime enabled, which could be limiting.

Other solid options: Skype, Zoom, Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts, and WhatsApp, especially if an older loved one is using a non-Apple smartphone or tablet. Try several options and see which they find easiest to use.

Need help? One option is Generations on Line’s free app Easy Tablet Help for Seniors, which covers basics like how to use a tablet and how to set up tools like FaceTime and Skype. That app, which is also available in in-browser versions for Apple and Android devices alike, provides tap-to-follow instructions on video calling installation and use, and is geared toward seniors who are not particularly tech-savvy. A Zoom tutorial is also in the works.

Choosing the right device

“Most older adults have the technology in hand to connect via video chat,” Isasi says. A recent AARP study found that smartphone adoption is at 62% among adults aged 70 and older.

The screen size on smartphones, however, can sometimes be too small and difficult to use, so Dichter recommends something like a full-sized iPad or Android tablet if at all possible.

If they don’t have one? Send it. “We want to remove every barrier,” Dichter says of Generations on Line’s app. “If you have an older iPad, wipe it clean, install the [Easy Tablet Help for Seniors] app, and send it to them.” Be careful to clean it thoroughly first.

Tablets, she says, also offer more flexibility than bulky desktop computers because seniors can take them with them around their homes, and avoid glare on their screens, which is sometimes an issue. A smaller tablet is a good option if cost is an issue.

But if those options are still too far above your relative’s comfort level, there are tablets geared specifically toward seniors such as GrandPad, which comes preloaded with video calling software and has a very simple, straightforward interface. Other smart devices, like the Amazon Echo Show or Portal from Facebook, also offer video calling capabilities, but the options are virtually endless.

Whatever you are using, though, connection is the key.

“If you know a senior, try to figure out a way to have a conversation safely,” Gabriel says. “They do need to hear that voice and know that they haven’t been forgotten.”

Expert sources:

  • Jacklyn Isasi, communications director for the AARP’s Pennsylvania State Office.

  • Keith Gabriel, communications manager for the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.

  • Tobey Gordon Dichter, founder and CEO of Generations on Line.