5 Ways to Maintain Strong Remote Connections with Family for Better Mental Health

In times of physical isolation, it’s more important than ever to make the effort to connect digitally. The mental health of your elderly relatives will benefit tremendously from digital connection – and you will, too.

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A shot of a senior couple video conferencing with their granddaughter
A shot of a senior couple video conferencing with their granddaughter

Staying connected is absolutely vital for the mental health and wellbeing of family members, especially for elderly relatives. During COVID isolation, many elderly relatives were mentally stranded in care homes, or in their own bubbles without the chance of a visit. Kids were also robbed of the opportunity to spend time in person with their seniors. 

For many, it’s not even a timely issue limited to the pandemic. You might have moved to another region from where we grew up, or your older family members may have migrated south for retirement. But even if you live in the same town as your family, you might find it hard to find the time to connect in person as often as you’d like to, given the realities of contemporary fast-paced lives.

Despite what our society tells us about generation gaps and the value of “making it on your own,” connecting with our family and especially our older relatives plays a vital role in our own mental wellbeing, as well as theirs. 

A lot of the media focus has rightfully been on the effects of loneliness and lack of communication on older generations, but not nearly enough has been on the loss that the younger generations are suffering, too. And the cycles feed into each other – I know I don’t speak just for myself when I say that I worry about my grandmother in isolation, and if I knew she was happier, it would be a burden off my chest, too. 

This pandemic has had serious mental health ramifications on both younger and older generations. Luckily, it’s possible to use digital communication channels to bolster mental health for every generation. Here are five ways to improve your mental health – and your family’s mental health – by spending quality time together digitally. 

1. Ask for support to boost emotional wellbeing

All too often, we don’t like to ask our grandparents or elderly relatives for anything – it feels like we’re imposing on them. But the opposite is true. Asking for help, or any other way of giving your relatives a chance to get involved in your life, helps to bring you closer by conveying that you value and love them. 

A recent study of South Korean families investigated the relationship between active involvement in grandparenting and emotional wellbeing. Ultimately, the researchers found that the emotional wellbeing of grandparents increases when they are able to support their grandchildren. 

So go on and ask for assistance on work projects, relationship advice, or any other thing you think they can help with. The great part about digital connections is that this can all be done remotely with video calls. 

Asking your older relatives for help is beneficial for your mental health, too. It gives you a chance to connect with another voice of support in your personal network. 

2. Establish routines to foster mental stability

It’s a proven fact that having something to look forward to gives you a huge mental boost. Anticipation of positive events boosts your mood and increases resilience to stressful events, an experiment from George Mason University and Wake Forest concluded.  

By building in weekly or monthly routines with your elderly relatives, this gives both of you something to look forward to. Especially for individuals with mental illness or cognitive impairment, routines give structure and predictability, which is a key component of their mental health. 

“Familiar faces, a familiar environment, even familiar food—anything they can use as a touchstone helps,” Holly Ryan, director of residential health services at Claremont Manor, told Aging Care

Ensure that you and your grandparents or elderly relatives have a weekly call, a monthly game, or even a book club to look forward to on a regular basis. 

3. Play games to sharpen dulled minds

The danger with too much routine is that it can cause mental rigidity. To combat that, new research from UC Irvine suggests playing video games can improve key aspects of memory in older adults. Not only that, but it can also serve as a way to enrich their environments, which also fights against cognitive decline. 

The best news is that these benefits apply to you, too. The same researchers found that younger adults and those aged 60 to 80 experienced similar benefits. 

Playing games is not only fun for both parties, but also very possible digitally even in times of physical isolation. You can opt for a service like Tabletopia that allows you to play thousands of board games virtually, or you can play online games through a dedicated console like an XBox or a PlayStation. 

The final benefit is that it’s a great way to spend time together that’s low-stress. Sometimes, digital calls can be more draining and tiring than in-person visits. By playing online, you can get quality interactive time together without experiencing Zoom drain

4. Build trust in your channels of communication

Everyone has heard a nursing home horror story. It can cause stress for both you and your elderly relatives if you feel like you can’t honestly communicate about the care they’re receiving. When communications break down, this causes a rise in stress levels, which in turn causes worse communication. 

One fascinating 2016 study found that when older adults and their primary caregiver were given six weeks of family-oriented communication lessons, depression, anxiety, and stress all decreased significantly. This proves that communication – and the ability to effectively communicate between generations – is vital for mental wellbeing on both sides. 

While not everyone can have specialized training, one easy step is simply to ensure you’re fully aware of how your elderly relatives are feeling, and that they know they can rely on you just as you can on them. 

This also helps to reinforce that you value their opinion, so they may be more likely to open up about potential struggles of their own without feeling like they’ve burdening you. An option like Happy Seniors offers a chart of moods for the residents of homes, which can give you a strong sense of how your loved ones are feeling, based on feedback from caregivers. It’ll tell you at once if something serious is up, helping you identify extra-sensitive moments to proactively reach out and strengthen that trust.

5. Share things you love to increase intergenerational happiness

Our family plays a huge role in forming our roots. Many times, it can feel a bit daunting to reach out to a family member with whom you may not feel you have much in common – but that’s a great reason to start finding common ground. By sharing things you love, you strengthen both the bond with your family member and increase your enjoyment of those activities or things. 

“Sharing interests such as sports, baking or flying kites brings happiness to both generations,” says Susan Newman, a social psychologist. “If kids are having fun, you’re going to feel good as a grandparent.” 

While there’s a disappointing lack of research on sharing interests between intergenerational familial relationships, there’s a wealth of research showing how sharing an interest or hobby between partners causes that relationship to flourish. One 2019 study from the Pew Research Center surveying couples found that 64% of them believe sharing interests helped their marriage succeed. Furthermore, a major reason for divorce is often cited as “no common interests,” according to Dr. Ann Buscho

Relationships with your elderly relatives are different from a marriage, but the fact is that sharing an interest can strengthen that relationship. A book club, discussing a movie you watched and enjoyed, listening to music together, or even cooking – these can all be done remotely and still be rewarding. Those bonds will bring greater mental wellbeing to you immediately and over time. 

Mental health needs a network

This pandemic brought home how much we need to value our relationships, and our relationships with elderly relatives are among the most neglected. These five tips are geared to help you increase your mental wellbeing by building better relationships with your grandparents or other older family members. 

Something as simple as asking for help when you need it, playing a game online, or just setting up a monthly movie to watch can bring you peace of mind. You’ll be secure in the knowledge that your relatives are feeling better, and you’ll feel all the better for it, too.

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