Video Chats with Family and Friends Offer Mental Health Boost
Anne Whitley lives 800 miles from her grandchildren’s home in Florida, but she still sees them daily. On her iPhone’s FaceTime app, Whitley catches up with her five-year old granddaughter, Cairo, who might show off a new toy, and her year-old grandson, Garvey, who enjoys practicing his latest words.
All it takes is just a few minutes each day to bridge those miles between them.
“I don’t want them to forget me in between visits,” said Whitley, 83, a retired teacher in Clayton, N.C., who sees her grandchildren in person a couple times a year. “That keeps us connected.”
Whitley’s main concern is staying in touch with her grandkids, but there’s another reason older adults may want to consider dialing up their loved ones by video chat platforms like FaceTime and Skype. A recent study from Oregon Health & Science University in Portland found that the use of video chat with friends and family also may be an effective way for older adults to dramatically reduce their risk for depression.
Fending Off Depression With a Video Chat
The study, published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, used data from the National Institute on Aging’s Health and Retirement Study, which surveys older Americans every two years. Researchers looked at Americans age 60 and up who used four kinds of communication technologies — video chat, email, social media networks like Facebook and instant messaging. Then, they examined their symptoms of depression two years later.
Researchers found that older adults who connected with their loved ones through email exchanges, Facebook posts or instant messaging sessions had about the same rate of depression compared to those who did not. By contrast, those who communicated through video chat cut their probability of depression by nearly half.
“We need to get beyond a discussion of technology being good or bad,” said lead author Alan Teo, an associate professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science’s School of Medicine and a researcher at the VA Portland Health Care System. “The conversation we need to be having, and I hope that this study helps move forward, is what ways should we be using our technology and what particular types of platforms might be the most beneficial for our health and happiness.”
Not Just About Preventing the Blues
Studies show that depression and social isolation can be problems for older adults. While the majority are not depressed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rates can rise as high as about 12% for those who are hospitalized and 14% for those who need home health care. And as many as 32% of people older than 55 feel lonely, according to the National Institutes of Health. Both depression and loneliness can have consequences beyond feeling blue and include links to poorer physical health and a shortened lifespan.
“People literally die earlier when they are lonely,” Teo said.
Teo’s research didn’t examine why video chat might be the better technology, but he can make an educated guess after years of treating patients as a psychiatrist and researching ways to help them. When we’re able to see the emotions and expressions as we talk to our loved one, we have a more intimate exchange, said Teo, who now makes the effort to video chat more often with his father, 82.
“It gives my dad and me a more immersive, more interactive experience,” he said. “We can be tempted to just shoot off a quick text message … but this study is a reminder that we shouldn’t settle for that all the time.”
The findings ring true with Kim G. Johnson, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, who was not involved in the research. She said she regularly hears from patients about their video chats with their grandchildren.
“It’s almost the next best thing to being there,” she said. The trick now, she said, is to make technologies like video chat more accessible to older adults.
4 Ways to Incorporate More Video Chats Into Your Life
Here are four tips on how to see your loved ones’ faces more often:
Get familiar with the technology. If you’re not sure how to use video chat, Teo said, figure out the barriers and get help. Some, like Whitley, get guidance from tech-smart children or grandchildren. Whitley’s daughter gave her an iPhone and showed her how to use FaceTime. “I won’t ever know how to use it as well as she does, but what I do know is good for me,” she said.
You also could sign up for a technology class at your local senior center or search online for tutorials. TechBoomers offers YouTube videos for how to use both Skype and FaceTime.
Switch it up. Daily or weekly video chats may need to be scheduled, but not every session has to be on the calendar, Teo said. If your granddaughter posts a prom picture on Instagram, instead of just posting a comment, contact her on Skype to ask her about the dance. Take the initiative to add more virtual face-to-face chats to your daily life. “Change up the mode of communication when you can,” Teo said.
Look in their eyes. During a video chat, make the effort to appear to be looking at the other person, Johnson said. That means you’ll need to look directly into the tiny video camera at the top of the screen from time to time instead of the screen where your family member’s face is. It’s an important way to help build rapport during your conversation, she said.
Still get together. Video chat and other forms of online communications should never replace your in-person get-togethers, where you can hug and hold and be present with the ones you love, Teo and Johnson said.
“But when you don’t have the option of being in person,” Teo said, “video chat is probably best.”
Sarah Lindenfeld Hall is a North Carolina-based journalist and freelance writer specializing in family, health, technology, small business and entrepreneurship topics.