Keeping Up with the Times: Is Video Communication Beneficial for Older Adults? – By: Alexa Vaquero


People across the world are becoming more and more connected, as new forms of human communication are made available through the never-ending advancement of technology.  The “old fashioned” letter is now being replaced by the simpler and faster online forms of communication.  Two such apps, FaceTime and Skype, allow individuals to video chat online using a computer or mobile device.  These modern-day technologies allow individuals to see and hear each other in real time.  This can feel like a much more personal form of communication – being able to see friends, family and loved ones, no matter where they are in the world (as long as they are connected to the internet).  Video chatting has led the way for innovative forms of interacting with others, such as providing music lessons to someone across the world, and holding business meetings with those who are unable to meet in person.  FaceTime and Skype are relatively straightforward, plus, the basic forms of the apps are completely free.  While FaceTime is only available on Apple devices, the Skype app is available on most digital devices, including computers and smartphones; as long as the device has a camera.  Both apps require users to go through a simple account set-up process before using the apps’ features.  To contact people on Skype, you must search the name of the person you want to reach, and request permission to connect with them.  FaceTime can link to the contacts already on the Apple device, so reaching out to people is a faster process.  With slight modifications, to make the apps more user-friendly for seniors, Skype and FaceTime can help fight social isolation in older adulthood, and serve as avenues for in-home therapy.

According to recent studies by Angelini et al. (2016), video communication technology can play an important role in the social life of older adults, strengthening their relationships and fighting isolation.  Unfortunately, this requires older adults to learn how to use digital technologies that are seldom designed with their needs in mind.  Physical, sensory, or cognitive impairments, can limit older adults’ accessibility to various communication technologies that have the potential to improve their social life, and well-being.  When dealing with electronic screens, older adults may have a difficult time seeing in low light, dealing with glare and focusing on small items, which are normal downsides of the aging process.  In regards to the video communication audio, older adults may have problems with high-frequency, low-intensity, and complex sounds.  Holding smaller, hand-held devices may prove to be another challenge, because there is a decline in older adults’ ability to grip objects, extending fingers, and deal with small buttons.  Additionally, complex tool bars of video communication apps may be difficult for older adults to navigate, because they have an increased learning time, and reduced problem-solving capacity (Angelini et al., 2016).

As mentioned above, older adults may face many challenges when using modern digital technology.  Changes to the design and functioning of the Skype and FaceTime apps, could help improve accessibility for older adults.  For Skype in particular, the tool bar needs to be simplified, so older adults will have an easier time navigating the settings options.  Both apps could benefit from having larger text sizes, and clear contrasts between the colors of the letters and the screen background, which helps eliminate the problem of older adults not being able to see what is on the screen.  The icons on the apps, such as the “call” and “contacts” buttons, require the user to know what the pictures on the buttons symbolize, which may prove to be a difficult learning challenge for seniors.  To solve this problem, the icons could be modified to say the word “call,” along with a small symbol of a phone, so the function of the button is clear.  In order to help seniors with hearing the audio during their calls, the apps could display a simple tool bar that allows users to adjust the volume and sound frequencies throughout the call, or the app could be updated to automatically adjust the audio to meet the hearing needs of older adults.  Finally, smaller video communication devices are not recommended for older adults to use, due to the challenges they may face with holding the device, and straining their eyes to see the smaller screen.  This problem can be solved by using Skype and FaceTime on larger digital devices, such as computers or laptops, which can stand on their own, and display larger pictures on the screen.

Angelini et al. (2016), took into account all the challenges that seniors face when operating modern telecommunication systems, to perform a case study on specially designed technology for older adults.  They created an always-on video communication system that utilizes the tangible features of a physical window; providing a natural interface for senior accessibility, without assistance from others.  The study focused on user acceptance of the specialized “Window” technology, with eight randomly selected older adults living in a retirement home, in Fribourg, Switzerland.  The main goal of the study was to assess whether eliminating the challenges of operating modern technology, would allow older adults to reap the benefits of video communication.  Previous research has demonstrated that access to such communication technologies is essential to fight social isolation and to improve older adults’ well-being.  Five of the eight participants in the study were women, and all participants were between ages 69 to 100, and had varying health conditions.  To collect data, the researchers used observational studies and a semi-structured interview process.  The study was conducted by implementing the digital, video communication Window into the users’ everyday environment.  The examiners explained to the participants that to use the Window technology, they had to knock on the glass to get the attention of the person on the other side and open the glass to allow audio communication.  During the study, the participants were asked to interact with a nurse from the retirement home on the other side of the Window and to try to recognize her.  Among the eight participants, six were able to successfully complete the task.  The researchers concluded that using a well-known object in the design of communication technology, such as a window, allows older adults to instinctively understand how it operates.  The interviews revealed that the participants believe video communication could help them to stay connected with their distant relatives.  Overall, this was just a preliminary case study with a small sample size, and more research is still being conducted on this topic.  The researchers believe increased accessibility for seniors, could encourage a positive outlook toward video communication technology, and eventually help fight social isolation.  With the right modifications, Skype and FaceTime have the potential to mediate older adults’ social interactions, as well (Angelini et al., 2016).

Further research from Choi et al. (2014), demonstrates the benefits of using Skype video calling, to provide problem-solving therapy (PST) for low-income, homebound older adults.  This population of people is more susceptible to depression, due to their chronic medical conditions, mobility impairment, and social isolation.  The researchers conducted a randomized controlled trial, to investigate the effectiveness of in-home, problem-solving therapy via Skype, in comparison with in-person PST and telephone care calls for treating depression.  Of the participants, 56 received PST through Skype, 63 received in-person PST, and 39 received care calls, over a period of six months.  The results of the study supported the hypothesis that Skype-PST and in-person PST are more successful than care calls in reducing depressive symptoms.  In addition, the relatively low equipment costs of Skype-delivered PST (requiring a laptop and wireless card), and the free, widely available access to Skype, could help improve access to psychotherapy for underserved older adults.  Also, participants gave the Skype-delivered PST high approval ratings, because it allowed them to feel comfortable in the privacy of their own homes.  Due to Skype and FaceTime’s similar functional features, it can be assumed that Facetime would also be a beneficial option for the delivery in-home therapies (Choi et al., 2014).

Research shows that Skype and FaceTime can help fight social isolation in older adulthood, and serve as avenues for in-home therapy.  With some modifications, video communication can significantly help improve the lives of older adults.


Angelini, L., Carrino, F., Caon, M., Lemaréchal, F., Couture, N., Khaled, O. A., & Mugellini, E. (2016). Testing the tangible interactive window with older adults: Toward an accessible video-communication system to fight social isolation. Geropsych: The Journal Of Gerontopsychology And Geriatric Psychiatry, 29(4), 215-224. doi:10.1024/1662-9647/a000159

Choi, N., Marti, C., Bruce, M., Hegel, M., Wilson, N., & Kunik, M. (2014). Six‐month postintervention depression and disability outcomes of in‐home telehealth problem‐solving therapy for depressed, low‐income homebound older adults. Depression and Anxiety, 31(8), 653-661. doi: 10.1002/da.22242


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