Strategies for engaging older adults in this era of 'social distancing'

Older adults are important sources of social and emotional support, and they possess needed experience and perspective, according to a Penn State expert. Credit: PexelsAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In the wake of the novel coronavirus, it is unfortunate that older adults, many of whom already experience more than their fair share of social isolation, are facing social distancing, according to a Penn State expert.

“There is a growing body of research pointing to the devastating effects of social isolation and loneliness,” said Matthew Kaplan, professor of intergenerational programs and aging in the College of Agricultural Sciences and an intergenerational specialist for Penn State Extension.

“Both actual loneliness and perceived loneliness are associated with increased risk of heart disease, dementia and even increased mortality risk,” he said.

In addition, by putting older adults out of social commission, those in younger generations lose out as well, Kaplan contends. Older adults are important sources of social and emotional support, and they possess needed experience and perspective ­­— borne from having persevered through epidemics, hurricanes, armed conflict and other disasters.

The good news is that there are many things we could do to sustain social connections between the generations, even when physically distanced, Kaplan noted.

“We need to be creative in how we use new and old technologies,” he said. “Whether through video chat apps, email, social media, virtual video games, the telephone or even old-fashioned letters or postcards, there are many ways to jumpstart, extend and deepen intergenerational conversations.”

For example, for families and older adults who have internet access and are comfortable using it, there are many ways to spend time together. In recent years, websites have emerged that enable people to enjoy exciting virtual travel and learning experiences even while “sheltering at home.” Famous arts and cultural institutions, such as the Louvre, the Smithsonian and the Guggenheim, now are offering free virtual tours.

Thanks to Zoom and other virtual meeting software, an online solo trip to a museum could be transformed into an exciting grandparent-grandchild adventure. The more-computer-savvy person could set up the meeting, and the less-savvy person only would have to click a link in an email, Kaplan said.

“Just imagine the intergenerational flurry of questions, reflections and shared amusement upon learning the backstory behind Leonardo da Vinci’s inspiration to paint the ‘Mona Lisa,’ the discovery of the ancient Rosetta Stone, why the Egyptians mummified their dead, and why Yang Yang, the panda at the San Diego Zoo, loves to play in the snow,” he said.

Computer gaming presents another realm of family-friendly activity that can transcend physical distance. In recent years, computer-game makers have been incorporating features that are conducive to family play, whether competitive or cooperative in nature. Multigenerational groups of players could take advantage of the many opportunities gaming platforms provide for interplayer sharing of gameplay knowledge, skills and perspectives.

Another game Kaplan suggested is “Stump Your Relative.” All that is needed is for at least two family members or friends of different generations to choose one or more items that are familiar to them but likely to “stump” a member of another generation. Then, take turns placing an item in front of a computer or smartphone camera and guess what that item is; hints are encouraged.

Another source of bountiful intergenerational exchange is rooted in the tradition of storytelling. Whether done through online platforms, such as StoryCorps Connect and Cornell’s Legacy Project, or over the phone, those with firsthand historic experience of living through times of hardship have important lessons to share for surviving and thriving today.

For example, those who lived through World War II are likely to have engaging stories about how their families stretched their resources, learned to live within their means and found ways to be self-reliant, such as by growing victory gardens to help feed their families.

If there are challenges related to computer access or digital literacy, Kaplan said, meaningful stories, photos, drawings, recipes and family mementos could be shared readily via postal cards, letters and small priority mail packages, noted Kaplan.

“In many ways, we need older adults to help us get through this current pandemic,” he said. “We need ready access to their experiences, emotional support and, most important, their examples of resilience for getting through difficult times. And they need us. Social distancing is cutting them off from social connections that are so crucial for their own health and well-being.”

For more information about intergenerational programs and aging, visit or the Penn State Extension website at

Last Updated May 15, 2020