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Seniors' tools for staying in touch get a tech upgrade

A cellphone user for the past 10 years,

A cellphone user for the past 10 years, Jacqueline Watkins has increasingly added texting to her communications and uses Zoom for church. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Jacqueline Watkins’ cellphone rarely leaves her side.

"I hear better on the cell than the landline, and because I keep it near me, I can answer it right away," said the Amityville resident, 78, who has two children and four grandsons. "I tell my daughter that it’s like my alert button."

A cellphone user for the past 10 years, Watkins has increasingly added texting to her communications for many reasons, including to converse with her daughter throughout the day and share news, as well as birthday and funny emojis, with her fellow church members. She also texts with her grandsons, since it’s generally their preferred method of staying in touch.

Since the pandemic, Watkins, who retired four years ago as a mental health facility’s clinical case manager, has also embraced Zoom to virtually attend church services, meetings and bible study groups.

"I was adamant about not wanting to do Zoom at first, but it’s convenient and helpful," she said.

Whether a consequence of the pandemic or an evolving recognition that the digital age comes with myriad helpful options for keeping in touch with friends and family, many Long Island senior citizens have incorporated a host of 21st century technologies into their arsenal of daily communications.

And in looking ahead to a post-pandemic time, they anticipate staying connected with family, friends, their community and business associates with the communications technology they have adopted or used with increased frequency since March 2020.

A hybrid future

Rabbi Irwin Huberman, 68, of Congregation Tifereth Israel in Glen Cove, can’t envision a future without Zoom. He foresees a hybrid form of gatherings — involving on-site and remote attendees — to become the norm.

Even before COVID-19 surfaced, the rabbi said he had observed the value of Zoom in not only serving as an alternative to on-site attendance at synagogue gatherings but as a tool to make Judaism and the congregation’s programs more accessible to people of all ages.

"In order to come to a synagogue-based service, people would have had to get dressed and go into their cars to join us, but video was more convenient and an acceptable way to attract more people," Huberman said.

To that end, in November 2019, he introduced Zoom to his congregants for the observance of Kristallnacht, or the Night of the Broken Glass, which recalls the Nazi-organized pogroms that vandalized Jewish businesses and homes in 1938 and led to the murder of Jews in Germany and Poland.

The following month — on the eighth day of Hanukkah, Zoom paved the way for the synagogue’s members to come together remotely to light their menorahs.

Since then, Huberman and his congregation have expanded the deployment of video-chat technology to offer remote access to different programs, including High Holy Days, Friday night and Saturday morning services, which have drawn worshippers from eight states and three Canadian provinces, as well as members who have relocated beyond the community and want to stay connected to the congregation.

And in the past 18 months, graveside funerals haven’t only replaced indoor ceremonies but have become quasi-borderless services, with deceased individuals’ family and friends, including those who live as far away as England and Israel, remotely joining graveside attendees "in real time," Huberman said.

"Zoom has opened up our imagination, services and programs to greater possibilities," said the rabbi, a Montreal native.

Plus, this summer, a video chat gave him the personal joy of catching up — over lunch — with two long-ago friends who are brothers and live in Canada. "Zoom provides an opportunity for face-to-face intimacy," Huberman said. "We’re not turning back."

Prodded by pandemic

Although baby boomer Dan Oppenheimer has continued his pre-pandemic practice of occasionally mailing handwritten notes on postcards, which feature his photography, to convey such sentiments as holiday wishes or condolences, the pandemic has driven the Cathedral Gardens resident to increase his digital communications, particularly texting.

No longer using the app only to confirm an appointment, "I’m texting whole conversations, which are pretty detailed," said Oppenheimer, who is semiretired and serves on boards in Hempstead village and town. "I’m also doing more Facebook posting, emailing in my personal life, and Zooming for business."

In varying ways, Long Island seniors’ adoption and stepped-up use of digital communications mirror a national trend among older adults.

An AARP 2021 Annual Tech Trends Survey found that 45% of seniors joined the video chat fold during the pandemic and are using it more now than before, and 66% expect to continue to video chat at their current levels in the post-pandemic period. Beyond the pandemic, 24% anticipate logging onto video chats less, but 9% expect to use them more than they currently do.

The survey also noted that during the same period, 37% were newcomers to texting and 26% were new to email, but 85% expect to maintain their frequency of texts and emails beyond the pandemic, as compared to 7% who anticipate decreasing their texting frequency and 8% who expect to email less than they do now.

According to Gayle Berg, a Roslyn psychologist in private practice, the isolation that many seniors experienced during the pandemic has served as the "mother of invention" in driving them to acquire and use tech communications.

Based on to research focusing on older adults, Berg said, seniors can reap myriad benefits from using video technology, including having a "lower risk of depression and experiencing decreased loneliness, a strong sense of connection and the ability to maintain existing relationships."

Along those lines, a Pew Research Center survey, conducted in April, found that since February 2020, 45% of seniors between ages 50 and 64 and 40% of those 65 and older said that text messaging or group messaging apps helped them "a lot to stay connected with family and friends."

Voice calls afforded the same benefit to 37% of 50- to 64-year-olds and 44% of people ages 65 and older, while 29% of individuals 50 to 64 years old and ages 65 and over felt video calls helped them in the same manner.

Still, digital communications are no substitute for in-person gatherings with family and friends, Berg said. "We are social beings and hard-wired for human touch."

Avoiding overload

Oppenheimer’s wife, Patty, considers herself a victim of digital-communication overload. When the pandemic hit, Patty, then employed as a marketing executive at a publishing company, not only started working from home but her immersion in technology, including Zooms, emails and texts, grew "exponentially" to keep pace with an escalating workload.

"My typical day in 2020 was 10 to 12 hours long, with back-to-back Zooms," she said. Her personal use of technology exacerbated screen-time burnout.

Determined to take a "big step back" from tech communications, particularly from Zoom, she left the publishing company in December 2020 and became a research consultant while enrolled in a Northwestern University remote digital marketing course.

In July, Patty assumed her current full-time post as associate manager of content marketing at Henry Schein, where she has no qualms about returning to the screen for professional responsibilities.

"I work in media/marketing," Patty said, "and can’t go cold turkey."

But in her personal life, she has largely replaced Zooms with voice calls, in-person chats with neighbors and long walks in her neighborhood.

Yet, bowing to an older relative’s wishes, Patty continues to email her, and she still texts with a small circle of close friends and relatives, including her husband and 20-year-old son, Benjamin.

"I love texting," Patty said. "It’s very intimate and super useful," particularly when her husband, Dan, is grocery stopping and "I want him to pick up coffee."

Keen to stay connected to family, friends and their community during the pandemic, about 30 older Long Islanders turned to TechTime for help in navigating the digital age. The 3½ -year-old Syosset firm offers group and private lessons on technology to businesses and individuals, Wendy Weiss, the company’s owner, said.

Irene Dicker, a Great Neck senior and retired principal since June 2019, initially turned to Weiss for guidance in using Microsoft Word to edit her forthcoming self-published book, "Happy Grandparenting," which draws on her personal and professional experience with children.

Since then, Dicker has also tapped Weiss for assistance with a range of technology issues, such as navigating the multiple chats that pop up simultaneously on her screen and using Zoom on different devices.

While the video-chat app has expanded Dicker’s life socially during the pandemic, enabling her to virtually attend synagogue functions and remotely get together with her family and friends, COVID-19 isn’t the only development motivating her to log onto video chats.

The "impossible traffic" on the Cross Bronx Expressway, which she traverses to visit relatives in New Jersey, has also driven her to video chats.

The road trip should take 23 minutes, but because it can take as much as three hours, Dicker said, "I try not to drive there and, in addition to rides I get from my daughter, I use Zoom as an alternative."

Mind your P's and Q's

With today’s diverse modes of communication, everything from video chats to texting is laced with the possibility of overstepping the bounds of politeness, according to Daniel Post Senning the great-great-grandson of Emily Post and co-host of the Awesome Etiquette Podcast, from the Emily Post Institute in Waterbury, Vermont.

Here are some of Senning’s tips for showing good manners in the digital age:

Phone calls, emails, texts

  • Be cognizant of recipients’ communication styles and connect with them in the way they are most comfortable.
  • In the company of others, excuse yourself briefly to answer a call or respond to a text — prioritize the people in your presence.
  • Limit texts to brief messages containing “who, what and where” and follow-up with a phone call for additional details.
  • Use phone calls to convey feelings and emotional support.
  • Subject lines in emails should communicate the gist of the message.
  • Send an “oops” with a brief apology after emailing or texting an unintended recipient.

FaceTime, Zoom and more

  • Acknowledge participants’ arrival with “hello” or “hi,” and their departure with a “goodbye.”
  • Before using FaceTime, call the intended recipient to ask permission for a video chat.
  • Before starting a Zoom session, make an effort to ensure a good connection so as not to delay its start.
  • Position the screen’s camera to give the impression that you’re making eye contact.
  • Upon noticing people showing signs of fatigue, bring the video chat to an end.
— Cara S. Trager

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