Social media serves as saving grace for seniors in COVID era

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published October 20, 2020

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METRO DETROIT — The list of essential items needed to get through the COVID-19 pandemic goes well beyond personal protection equipment.

Just ask a toilet paper purveyor.

For most of us, social media has been near the very top of that list of must-haves, not just during the pandemic shutdown, but every day. That’s especially true for older members of our community, who have been shown to be more susceptible to the dangers of COVID-19 and, in turn, may have spent the last eight months even more closed off from the world.

Having access to a computer and smartphone has been a great thing for Molly McElroy, 70, of Auburn Hills.

“If you, like me, are a senior, which makes you a high risk for COVID-19, (social media) is how you carry on. You’re already limited at some level by age, driving less at night, and now you’re isolated,” McElroy said. “Or are you? Thanks to my hobbies — indolence and the Internet — I hardly feel impacted at all.”

McElroy’s online agenda has all the variety you might expect of an in-person social butterfly. Having mastered more than one video chat app, she has virtual lunches with girlfriends and Saturday night virtual sangria gatherings with as many as 12 participants. Sure, the scene looks more like the introduction to “The Brady Bunch,” with faces stacked on top of each other on the screen, but the laughter is constant and at the end of the night, the bar tab can’t be beat.

She uses video chat apps for dating, too.

“Private conversations as with my significant other are great with Skype. With the same format, (and) a little lipstick, a headband, a statement piece (of jewelry) — I didn’t even shower, and I’m just as alluring as ever,” McElroy said with a laugh.

But her foray into social media began years before COVID-19 came to town, so she wasn’t starting from scratch when learning how to use many of 2020’s most popular communication apps.

That’s not always the case, though. Lots of seniors have been reluctant to embrace social media technology before now, and catching up was tough during the shutdown. Tera Moon, the assistant director of the Bloomfield Township Public Library, said the facility’s “Tech Open Labs,” hosted twice a month on  the Zoom virtual meeting program, have been more popular than ever.  

“This is a time for folks to ask for help with technology such as Zoom, their devices or a specific application like Word or Excel. Each Tech Open Lab has a topic, but people can ask about anything,” Moon said in an email, adding that registration for the sessions is required, as they tend to fill up fast. “In the past, we have offered classes on many technology topics, such as Microsoft products (like) Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Google Docs, social networking, basic photo editing and internet security.”

In between those times, she said, visitors at the library are always able to ask some quick, socially distanced queries.

“The library is open now, so people can call and speak to staff at the Computer Help Desk, or librarians, who are great at answering questions about using devices to access the library’s e-books and other electronic content,” Moon said. “Folks are also welcome to come into the building and talk with staff. We try to help from a safe distance and have equipment cleaning protocols to protect users and staff.”

Even before the pandemic, social media has been proven to help many seniors feel less isolated from day to day. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 43% of adults 60 or older in the United States reported feeling lonely before the virus became active in their community.

All this time later, a study published in The Journals of Gerontology showed that loneliness was amplified substantially during periods of “sheltering in place.”

Two years ago, a study from researchers at the University of Michigan’s Department of Sociology and Institute for Social Research reported that social media interactions can curtail the depression that could be caused by isolation. In that study, the isolation was prompted by pain from chronic illness rather than a global pandemic.

McElroy counts herself an example of how online social interaction can not only stave off sadness and anxiety, but perhaps even bring joy.

“We can be safe and happy while we wait out this pandemic,” she said. “Learn the formats, stay connected and keep your spirits up. Remember, ‘This too shall pass.’ Perhaps like a kidney stone, but it will pass,” she said again with a laugh.