6:00am

Sun December 25, 2011
Commentary

Screen Test

Email, text messages, tweeting - communication has certainly gone high-tech these days. But the art of reaching out and actually talking to someone, no matter how high-tech, still has therapeutic value. KUNC commentator Dr. Marc Ringel has more.

I phone my mother almost every day.  She’s in her late eighties.  Hearing my voice seems to do her a world of good.

If she had a computer I’d give Mom a regular video dose of me too.  It could be done with standard, easy-to-use technology.  But she’s never in her life used a keyboard attached to anything but a typewriter.  And out of principle, my mother wouldn’t touch a thing that’s called a “mouse,” no matter what it’s made of.  That’s too bad because video can add an important dimension, literally and figuratively, to communication over a distance.

I just read a fascinating article in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.  A taste of things to come, the journal is itself published online.  The report is about the effect on nursing home residents of establishing a video link between patients and their families.

Sixteen long-term care facilities in Taiwan provided a weekly five-minute video connection between forty randomly chosen residents and their families.  

A comparison group (in research lingo a control group) of 50 clients did not receive this service.  All subjects were at least 60 years old, with an average age of 77.  Regular phone calls and face-to-face visits continued as before in both groups.

The video was nothing fancy.  It was based on off-the-shelf laptop computers loaded with Skype and Windows Live Messenger, which are simple Internet communication programs.

Psychological tests performed three, six and twelve months after establishing the video connection found a significant difference between residents who had regular voice-and-picture contact with their families and those who didn’t.  Measured levels of social connection were higher and loneliness and depression scores were lower for those who had seen their families on a video screen for five minutes a week.

These effects persisted through the yearlong duration of the study.  To me, it’s pretty astounding that just five minutes a week of low-end video communication with a loved one is enough to make a significant difference in the psychological wellbeing of an older person.

Whenever I wrote my grandparents from college they’d respond right away with a letter and enclosed ten- or twenty-dollar bill.  They were thrilled to get even a few words from me on a postcard.  Understanding now how much my small efforts at communication meant to them, I wish I’d written more often.

I’m doing better by my mother.  I’ll continue to call her most days and will try to visit her in Chicago every two or three months.

In my professional life I plan to keep after those who care for people at risk of isolation, especially residential and homebound patients.   Health care institutions need to exploit the ever easier, cheaper and more reliable electronic technologies that keep folks feeling better connected.  Connection itself is therapeutic.

And here’s a hint to my own kids.  Unlike Grandma, Mom and I do use a computer.

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