By Diana Creel Elarde

I had expected the task of moving my aging parents back to Michigan to be with family would be an emotionally difficult transition. What I had not anticipated was having to witness their goodbyes to their close friends. Nowhere in our best laid out plans had we thought of the loss of connections.

The awkward stance between my father and the man who had been his closest friend for twenty years was simply heartbreaking. Both men were trying hard not to make a big deal of the move. Yet the realization that this would be their last moments together was heavy in the room. The half hug and the mumbles of goodbye between these two men was difficult to watch. And the realization of the significance of the loss of connection in their personal relationship became overwhelming. Walking away in order to compose myself, I fought back my tears in the next room.

Over the next couple of days the scene was re-played with a series of people who had been their traveling companions during my parents’ Airstream days, and the many neighbors they knew so well. All overshadowed by the fact that while letters may be written and phone calls might be made, the critical interaction so essential in maintaining a close relationship would be difficult.

Twenty years ago, the absence of the traditional modes of connecting with friends would have most likely have meant the end an interactive friendship. But we are living in a new age of connectivity. Smartphones, tablets, and computers provide the means to continue to interact in quality ways across long distance.

While for many seniors technology may feel daunting, it is truly never too late to teach an old dog a new trick! Case in point– At 96 years old, my mother, after a few instructions, learned to use Facebook on an iPad as a means of keeping in touch with all of her children and grandchildren. The messages and photos provide a feeling of ongoing contact and connection to the events and people in their lives. And lately, I am occasionally delighted when my phone lets me know I am getting a Facetime video request from her.

Where to Learn?

Yes, the technology is there to allow connection in new ways. But how to deal with the learning curve involved, especially for people who might not be sure technology can be mastered.

Once you step outside the mindset of “I can’t” and instead embrace “If others can do it, then I can too” you’ll find resources to help you get started in mastering some simple technology to help you connect with old friends.

If you already have basic computer skills, and are a person who is good at self-learning, by searching on YouTube you can find instructional videos for just about anything. Search for “how to use Facetime” or for more options “how to use video chat”.

Tutor education modern technology concept. Hello hi! Cheerful excited joyful intelligent clever glad relaxed grandpa using netbook telling relatives friends news via internet connection

If you need instructing in basic technology skills and you live in a 55+ plus community or in a senior living housing complex, you could check with the Activity Director for the following:

  • Do they have a computer class or a regular meeting for people wanting to learn about computers or technology?
  • Is there someone in the complex or community who is adapt at technology and willing to help others?
  • Do they provide transportation to a local library, as quite often staff there are willing to show you how you can use technology
  • If you are using Apple products, perhaps a trip to the local Apple store where they have classes and technical help could be beneficial
  • If all else fails, try a grandchild! The grasp of even a 7-year-old on what using technology can be an experience in itself!

Initially it can certainly feel uncomfortable or intimidating but as they say practice makes perfect. And as humans it is amazing what we can achieve when we put our minds to it! Remember everyone started somewhere so get beyond self-judgement and think about the enjoyment you can get from connecting with family and friends.

What technology and methods might work for you?

The simplest method by far may be your cell phone. One thing that feeds relationships is consistent contact. Why not arrange a monthly call with a friend on a specific day and time? This way it is on the calendar just like any other activity you would have with someone close.

It may be a good idea to find out what apps the people you want to connect with are using. Facetime video chat is only for iPhones and iPads. If both of you have an iPhone, a simple push of the right button while you are talking to them and you could be looking at the friendly face you are missing!

Skype video chat will work on all phones and tablets but is not quite as simple as Facetime. You can set up an account with Skype by going to this link: Skype is a free service and can be used on your computer or phone. Similar to Facetime it is an easy and effective method to stay connected.

Once a month I “meet” over Skype with a fellow writer and friend in Michigan (and a soon to be a contributing writer for ThriveAfter50!) to discuss our newest writing ventures. The consistent calls have deepened our friendship and make for a very pleasant monthly event.

Not sure what to discuss to enrich connection? A few topics or activities might be:

  • Read a book together and discuss it, similar to what you would do in a book club.
  • Discuss a favorite TV show and try to bring a trivia question to the call.
  • Bring up a fun or historical fact from a place far away.
  • Pick a song from your youth and reflect on a memory that it brings up.
  • And of course, there could also be time to discuss your latest activity, grandkids or even a local attraction you have been to recently.
  • Try to keep the conversation upbeat and positive. While we all might need some time to vent, it is always more uplifting to discuss new and positive subjects.

Email conversations and photo ops

Email has come far from the early days when we used to be greeted by “you’ve got mail!” Not only can we have ongoing “conversations” over email, but we can send video clips, links to interesting websites, or forward a joke or two to lighten someone’s day. Email can be easily accessed on a computer, a phone, an iPad or other tablet, making it possible to “carry” your mail (and in a sense your friends) with you.

And if you are not sure that a small keyboard is for you, voice dictation has improved and offered on many smartphones. At a push of a button you can dictate a message and send it off. It doesn’t have to be lengthy just let them know you are thinking of them.

If you are out and about during a beautiful fall day, snap a picture of the pumpkin you just acquired or the fall colors outside your door. With just a few clicks on your phone, it easy to send the pictures directly to another person’s phone with a few words connecting you from a distance!

Text messaging, available on every cellphone now, seems to be the default mode of communication for the younger generation. While many youngsters may not have the time or inclination to talk to a grandparent on the phone (and don’t take it personally, they feel the same way about each other) you might be surprised and find they are willing to reply to text messages you send them.    

Of course, there is still mail!

If all this still doesn’t seem appropriate for you, there is always the traditional route of sending a letter. You can certainly get creative with a kit from the local craft store that’s makes it easy to indulge in your creative side and create a one-of-a-kind handcrafted card for a special person. Last year I received such a card and its presence on my desk is a reminder of a special time together.

Greyscale image of an elderly man doing calligraphy writing using a nib pen and ink on a sheet of white paper in a low angle close up view of his hands with foreground copy space.

For years I have sent cards from Creative Arts Publishing with the work of photographer Larry Burton. I especially like his collection of photos of the West. I always have a wide variety of them in a drawer and try to match a photo with the recipient. Nothing better than seeing a card you sent to a friend sitting in their home, knowing that it meant something to them.

They say that letter writing is a lost art. Connecting through a letter that takes time and effort to both write and create sends a message out in a very personal way.

Last year after the death of a close friend I began to send his spouse a monthly letter. His spouse and I didn’t know each other very well but I wanted to honor our mutual connection and let him know his life matters to me because he was loved by my close friend. I cannot begin to relate the special bond which has developed over the last year of writing. Many of the letters seemed almost trivial, but they carried the same unwritten message – You matter and I am thinking of you. Today I have several people who I include in this ritual. Grief has years of stages. I want to send the message that I understand what they are going through, and I hold them in my heart not only in month 1, but in month 7 and month 12 as well.

Connection, our universal need

If there is anything social psychology has taught us it is the universal need to connect with others. Isolation and separation weigh heavily on most. For those who have more days behind us than ahead of us, connecting with the memories of joyful events and encounters can be invaluable. Talking about and reliving an old experience with a friend can release the same positive endorphins from our brain as living it the first time.

Just think of a time when you were out with a friend or spouse while your favorite song played in the background. Wouldn’t hearing that song today take you back to that sweet memory? Perhaps you might have the urge to sing along or smile as you think of the joyful time you first heard this song and the people you shared it with.

Connection – we are so very fortunate to live in a time where connection can be easily found on so many levels. Do not let distance become an obstacle that keeps you from the people who gave you joy and wonderful times. Let your natural creativity come through in finding new ways to stay connected.

And be it Facetime, Skype, email, text message, or a letter in the mail, the gift of connection is us knowing we continue to share the world with liked-spirited people who mattered to us not only in the past but throughout our life-long journey.

Gift/connection copyright DElarde, 2018

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