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Staying Connected

Technology helps seniors keep in touch, active during pandemic

By Teresa M. Pelham

For the first seven years of her grandson’s life, Marye Gail Harrison would visit him in New Hampshire for a weekend once a month. When COVID-19 hit, she figured her visits with him would be put on hold, at least temporarily. Now several months later, her relationship with him is stronger than ever, and they “visit” with each other for an hour, five days a week.

Thanks to Zoom, Harrison and her grandson, Ron, enter a world of make-believe, complete with costumes and props. It’s a part of his at-home schooling that will most definitely stay with him long after 2020 is in our rearview.

Harrison begins each Zoom call by asking, “What’s going on in the neighborhood today?” Ron then comes up with a scenario involving a few of his stuffed animals, and the two take it from there. They both have plenty of dress-up clothes, hats, and masks, and the hour goes by in a flash.

“We’re basically doing extemporaneous theater,” says the 79-year old resident of Seabury, an active life plan community in Bloomfield. “It’s a little like ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,’ a neighborhood of all of his buddies and allies, along with other nefarious characters.”

The pair has been at this since his elementary school closed in mid-March, with no summer break.

“For someone my age, COVID is very scary,” she says. “To have this intense experience with this child who I want to live for, and who I want to see grow up, it’s blown my mind, frankly. In this time of great angst, this [visiting virtually] has been a source of great joy.”

Harrison has learned quite a few computer skills that are helping her stay engaged. She learned how to set up an email listserv for an art group based at Seabury and is now its administrator. And she learned some pretty complicated computer skills in order to incorporate artwork into an online service for the Unitarian Society of Hartford.

“I thought I was really hot because I could email an attachment, I could text, and I have a Facebook account,” she says. “I’m not a pro now, but give me enough time and I can figure it out.”

We can officially stop making fun of senior adults’ inability to use computers and handheld devices. It’s estimated that more than 70 percent of seniors are online, and since that segment of the population has been especially hard-hit by the virus, it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that many older Americans are not only keeping up with technology but embracing it. Many seniors are also coming up with new ways to stay busy and pursue hobbies they enjoyed before 2020.

A recent report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine states that isolated and lonely adults have a 50% higher chance of developing dementia, a 29% higher chance of coronary heart disease, and a 32% higher chance of having a stroke – and are at a higher risk of hospitalization.

Singers like Priscilla Hurley, who lives at McLean senior living community in Simsbury, have had to temporarily give up that hobby, since singing is one of the highest-risk activities people can do, in terms of spreading the coronavirus.

But Hurley belongs to the Hartford Chorale, which meets virtually every month. Along with some 25 other members, she recently played Jukebox Bingo online, and is proud to announce that she won the first game. The organization also figured out how to do virtual group singing, with members recording two sections of Handel’s Messiah on their cellphones and editing them to perfection.

Hurley, who declines to give her age, says she was surprised at how much entertainment is available through your computer. She has been hearing a different opera or musical every night, streamed by the Metropolitan Opera and the Goodspeed Opera House. And she’s preparing to participate in a virtual murder mystery with the Theatre Guild of Simsbury.

“Singing is going to be one of the last things to come back,” she says. “Singers are spitting all over the place. But we’re doing what we can to stay busy and active.”

Just down the road at Duncaster in Bloomfield, Susan Aller is busy running a memoir writing club that used to meet in person every Monday morning to read each other’s writing around a big table and share feedback.

All but one of the 20 club members have stayed involved through email. Aller regularly provides the group with a prompt to get the creative juices flowing. She recently read a New York Times article about six-word stories. In addition to printing some of residents’ own six-word stories in “Thistle,” Duncaster’s monthly literary magazine, we’ve shared some here (see box.)

Aller, 86, has worked as a professional writer for many years, having written more than a dozen books.

“I’ve been computer literate for a long time but I’m still learning, and as I learn, I teach other people to get up to speed,” she says.

Duncaster employs two full-time IT professionals who are available to help residents with any tech-related issues.

“When you’ve got a computer problem, you just call Walter or Eric,” Aller says. “It’s worth living at Duncaster just for that.”

Aller also is active in a children’s book writers’ group in West Hartford, which meets via Zoom twice monthly, in addition to meeting with Duncaster’s board of directors as a resident representative once a month.

She has family living in Paris and New York City, and she regularly catches up online with them.

“We all complain about and criticize young people with their faces buried in their phones,” Aller says. “Suddenly we are that generation. We have to be.”

While Aller has decided she’s not a fan of telehealth appointments, she has embraced getting items from Whole Foods delivered through Amazon Prime, and she found a distant cousin during lockdown through Ancestry.com.

“Boredom sets in when you don’t have a goal,” she says. “The people who thought they could get through life without adapting to technology are really suffering now from the inability to connect with others. We’re making lemonade out of lemons.”


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