Video Chat Apps Can Help Seniors Avoid Social Isolation and Depression | Patient advice
Growing old is not easy and one of the biggest concerns of the health of the elderly is social isolation. As family members move away and friends die, older people can feel lonely and disconnected. Isolation is a key predictor of depression and maybe a reason why so many older people have the disorder. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to about 5% of older people suffer from major depression, and the figures rise to 13.5% for patients requiring home care and 11.5% for older hospitalized patients.
So it stands to reason that staying socially connected can help. Modern technology gives us all new ways to stay in touch with our friends and loved ones, and a recent study, published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, reveals that one technology seems to work better than any other: the cat. video.
Researchers at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Oregon, reviewed four online communication technologies to see which best help older people:
- Video chat
- Social media networks
- Instant messaging
Older adults (around 65 on average) who used email, instant messaging, or social media platforms like Facebook had roughly the same rate of depressive symptoms than those who did not use any communication technology. But people who used video chat apps like Skype and FaceTime had nearly half the estimated likelihood of depressive symptoms, after adjusting for other factors, such as pre-existing depression and education level.
The benefits of social connection
The study was led by Dr. Alan Teo, associate professor of psychiatry at OHSU. This was a follow-up to an earlier study by him, published in 2015, which investigated other modes of social contact and risk of depression in the elderly. “In this study, we found that the face-to-face and in-person time was the best. The more often the elderly got together with their loved ones, the lower the rates of depression, even years later, ”says Teo. “The phone and email weren’t as beneficial.”
After the publication of this study, Teo wondered what would reveal more modern modes of communication, such as social networks and video chat platforms. He interviewed over 1,400 seniors who self-reported their use of these various modes of communication and their depressive symptoms.
“The initial impression we got was that the more different technologies people used might indicate a lower risk for depression, but that didn’t seem to explain it,” says Teo. “It was really video chat. It was well known that the use of video chat reduced rates of depression. It was the unique advantage.
“It’s not incredibly surprising,” says Dr. Philip R. Muskin, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City. “Solitude is a route to depressive symptoms. In anyone, but certainly in the elderly, the more socially interactive you are, the less likely you are to be depressed. And video chat “really lets you interact,” he says. “It doesn’t equate to presence, but it’s real-time and it’s more compelling and engaging than talking on the phone or using email or any of the other technologies. By e-mail, no one understands my jokes. I am using (video chat) to see my grandson.
Face to face time is gold
The study is correlational rather than causal, so we cannot say that using video chat prevents depression. (Teo is currently writing a grant proposal to examine the cause-and-effect relationships between depression and solitude interventions.) And adults in their 60s – the average age of study subjects – are generally no longer considered “seniors.” Teo did not analyze the data to see if the relationship between video chat and depression changed as subjects got older.
But these potential problems don’t diminish the study’s results, Muskin says. “Hiring an elderly parent is a great thing to do,” he says. “It probably takes longer for Skype and FaceTime, but it suggests you should think about doing it. For seniors who aren’t tech savvy, many senior centers offer help if their adult children or grandchildren aren’t there to teach them. “Talk to your loved ones. Encourage people to get involved, ”says Muskin.
“The judicious use of technology and video chat that comes as close as possible to mimic face-to-face contact is the gold standard here,” Teo concludes. “Quality time spent face to face with loved ones is one of the best things we can do for our long-term and sustained emotional health. The larger message here, he says, is that fight against loneliness and social isolation in everyone, not just the elderly, requires creative solutions. “It won’t come from taking pills,” Teo says. “When I use FaceTime with my father, who is 80, it’s a learned behavior. Using these behavioral approaches is likely to be helpful.