GROWING OLDER ISN’T easy, and one of the biggest concerns for senior health is social isolation. As family members move away and friends pass on, seniors can feel alone and disconnected. Isolation is a key predictor of depression and may be a reason why so many seniors have the disorder. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to about 5 percent of older adults have major depression, and the numbers rise to 13.5 percent for patients who require home health care and to 11.5 percent in older hospital patients.
So it stands to reason that remaining socially connected can help. Modern technology affords all of us new ways to stay in touch with friends and loved ones, and a recent study, published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, finds that one technology appears to work better than any other: video chatting.
Researchers at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Oregon, reviewed four online communication technologies to see which helped seniors best:
Social media networks
Older adults (average age of about 65) who used email, instant messaging or social media platforms like Facebook had about the same rate of depressive symptoms as those who did not use any communication technologies. But people who used video chat applications such as Skype and FaceTime had almost half the estimated probability of depressive symptoms, after adjusting for other factors, such as pre-existing depression and level of education.
The Benefits of Social Connection
The study was led by Dr. Alan Teo, associate professor of psychiatry at OHSU. It was a follow-up to an earlier study of his, which was published in 2015, that investigated other modes of social contact and risk of depression in older adults. “In that study, we found face-to-face, in-person time came out on top. The more frequently seniors got together with loved ones, the lower the rates of depression even years later,” Teo says. “Phone and email were not as beneficial.”
After that study came out, Teo wondered what more modern modes of communication, like social media and video chat platforms, would reveal. He surveyed more than 1,400 older adults who self-reported their use of these various modes of communication and their depressive symptoms.
“The initial impression we had was that the more different technologies people used might indicate a lower risk for depression, but that didn’t seem to explain it,” Teo says. “It was really the video chat piece. It was consistently the case that using video chat lowered rates of depression. That was the unique benefit.”
“It’s not incredibly surprising,” says Dr. Philip R. Muskin, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York. “Loneliness is a route to depressive symptoms. In anybody, but certainly in older people, the more socially interactive you are, the less likely you are to be depressed.” And video chat “really allows you to interact,” he says. “It doesn’t match being there, but it’s in real time and is more compelling and engaging than talking on the phone or using email or any of the other technologies. In email, no one gets my jokes. I use (video chat) to see my grandchild.”
Face-to-Face Time Is Gold
The study is correlational rather than causal, so we can’t say that using video chat prevents depression. (Teo is currently writing a grant proposal to look at cause-and-effect relationships between depression and loneliness interventions.) And adults in their 60s – the average age of the subjects in the study – are not typically considered “senior” anymore. Teo did not parse the data to see if the relation between video chatting and depression changed as subjects got older.
But these potential issues don’t diminish the study’s findings, Muskin says.“Engaging an elderly relative is a really good thing to do,” he says. “It probably takes more time to Skype and FaceTime, but this suggests you should think about doing it.” For seniors who aren’t up to speed with the technology, many senior centers offer help if their adult children or grandchildren aren’t around to teach them. “Talk about this with your relatives. Encourage people to be engaged,” Muskin says.
“The savvy use of technology and video chat that is as close to mimicking face-to-face contact as we can, that is the gold standard here,” Teo concludes. “Quality time spent face to face with loved ones is one of best things we can do for our emotional health on a long-term, sustained basis.” The broader message here, he says, is that battling loneliness and social isolationamong everyone, not just in older adults, requires creative solutions. “It is not going to come from taking pills,” Teo says. “When I use FaceTime with my father, who is in his 80s, that is a learned behavior. Using these behavioral approaches have a good chance of being helpful.”