How to Stay in Touch While Social Distancing

March 24, 2020

This is an unsettling time in our lives. Suddenly, we are confronted with phrases like "social distancing" and "self-isolation" and left to wonder if we're standing far enough away from other shoppers at the grocery store. If we have loved ones near or far, do we take the risk to ride the train, to drive, or to fly to see them? These are dilemmas I'm personally grappling with, and I know these questions resonate across the world right now.

As a social worker, I can't overstate the importance of maintaining human contact for our emotional well-being, and I'm concerned about our global mental health during this crisis. We need to find ways to keep our anxiety at bay and stay connected with our friends and family while practicing social distancing. We need to find ways to be together, apart.

There are several tech options and gadgets that can help bridge the distance and ways to use these tools to socialize with others.

Tools to stay in touch:

There are a variety of options that allow you to have virtual face-to-face meetings through video chatting. FaceTime (only on Apple products), Skype, Google Duo or Hangouts, and Zoom are a few options out there that many utilize daily. While these video chat options are available to use through apps on your phone, I prefer using them on a laptop or large tablet, so the image is bigger and more life-sized.

If your schedule doesn't allow you to video chat with a friend live, you can send video messages back and forth with ease by using an app like Marco Polo. It's a fun way to stay in touch face-to-face throughout the day without needing to carve out a chunk of time all at once.

Some sweet and silly gifts let someone know you're thinking of them from a distance. For example, there's a long-distance friendship lamp that changes your friend's lamp color when you touch yours, sending the message that you're thinking of them, or a heart box which receives messages in a unique way, rather than simply sending the text via phone. 

However, these tools will only work if the person on the other end also knows how to use the service. While writing this article, I consulted with Liz Hamburg at Candoo Tech, a thoughtful tech company that specializes in helping older adults with technology. As more people are self-isolating in their homes, she has posted some fantastic How-To videos, and free PDF printed guides on how to use FaceTime, Zoom, as well as how to order supplies from various online stores. Candoo Tech has launched online, one-on-one, virtual lessons to help solve tech issues you might face at home. Whether it's getting a video service to work, ordering items online, setting up new equipment, accessing online banking, Candoo Tech can help.

Opportunities to stay connected:

I propose using these tools to schedule regular, virtual coffee dates, lunches, and happy hours with your friends and family. I'm planning to use this as an excuse to reach out to people I haven't seen in a long time, checking in on them and strengthening old bonds. I'm looking forward to fostering those connections, and I know they will last longer than this quarantine.

Collaborate on activities together! Coordinate with friends or family to co-watch a movie or a television show at the same time while on a video call, so you chat and comment about it like you're in the same room. Find a friend who will participate in live streaming workout videos with you. Doing so will help hold you accountable while giving you a sense of community. There are plenty of options now that allow you to watch live fitness videos for free, or with an online donation to the instructor. Many organizations and fitness instructors are offering live virtual classes for free or by donation on Instagram Live, Facebook Live, Zoom, etc. Attend the opera or symphony (virtually) together! The Metropolitan Opera and many other cultural programs are streaming past performances you can enjoy in the comfort of your home. Start a virtual book club with your friends near and far, or take an online class together.

Play games together virtually. Once you're on a video call with someone, each of you can pull up this website to play charades long-distance! Or, use your phone or tablet to play an app version of your favorite board game, like Monopoly, Clue, Boggle, Battle Ship, The Game of Life, etc. Enhance your connection to the person you're playing against by using another device to video chat with them during the game if you are able. You may even be able to figure out how to play a real board game on video chat, although this might get tricky. Either or both of you can have the game set up in your own home, or you can figure out a system where one person is responsible for moving the pieces around the board and ensuring the board is visible on the camera. 

Liz Hamburg of Candoo mentioned using Caribu as a great way to connect with younger friends and family. It allows long-distance grandparents to read a digital book together with a grandchild while seeing each other on video. You can also draw and play online games together. It's best if both parties have tablets or iPads since the screens are more substantial, but you can also use your smartphones. 

We are all being challenged at this time, so spending time with family and friends is more important now than ever. They need your support just as you need theirs, and luckily technology has developed to provide those real face-to-face connections that we'll all need in the coming days.

If you have a loved one who has quarantined alone and in need of more than the occassional video check-in, please consider New York State's Medicaid-sponsored Consumer Directed Personal Assistance Program (CDPAP) and find out how you can get paid to care for your loved one.

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