Use technology to help parents, grandparents stay connected and healthy

Seniors can connect with their loved ones on through the many video chat apps. They can even follow an online dance or exercise tutorial. —

WHEN talking about health risks faced by older adults these days, we mainly focus on their risks of contracting Covid-19 and developing serious symptoms. Yet older adults are also susceptible to risks stemming from post-pandemic changes to daily life, particularly reduced physical activity, and limited access to social support networks.

Today, on the International Day of Older Persons, we would like to address this issue.

Physical activity is defined as any voluntary bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure. This encompasses all activities, at any intensity, including exercise and incidental daily activity. The World Health Organisation recommends that adults aged 60 and above do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity throughout the week, or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination of both. For additional health benefits, they should increase moderate-intensity physical activity to 300 minutes per week, or its equivalent. Those with poor mobility should perform physical activity to enhance balance and prevent falls, three or more days per week. Additionally, muscle-strengthening activities should be done involving major muscle groups, two or more days a week.

Generally, physical activity can be categorised into three domains: leisure activities, housework activities and occupation-related activities. With minimal occupational activity, older adults’ physical activities tend to be leisure and housework. Both these types of activities can be encouraged by having strong social support inside and outside the home.

Physical activity and social support are essential to healthy ageing. Yet, even before the pandemic, many older Malaysians lacked in both aspects. The National Health and Morbidity Survey 2018 revealed that one third of older adults (29.8%) were physically inactive and the same proportion lacked social support.

With Covid-19 curbing daily activities such as grocery shopping and visiting friends, the percentage of inactive and socially isolated older adults is probably much higher now. This is worrying as being physically inactive is the fourth leading risk factor for developing non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. Moreover, older adults without social support may not only be less active but may also be more prone to mental health issues. As the pandemic appears to be a long-term situation, we need to find ways to provide social support for older adults so they can remain physically active while maintaining social distancing.

Social support is defined as the provision of assistance or comfort for others, typically to help them cope with biological, psychological, and social stressors. There are four domains of social support: emotional, companionship, informational and tangible.

The social needs of older people are diverse, encompassing both the intimate and the peripheral members of their networks. With many older adults staying away from their children and relatives due to the pandemic, they are physically cut off from their social support networks. Yet, it is a blessing in disguise that this pandemic is happening in the era of digitalisation, as digital communication enables us to connect across physical distance. In fact, we can achieve all four domains of social support by using the most basic digital tool: the mobile phone.

Daily phone and video calls are a simple way for children and grandchildren to provide social support for their elderly parents or grandparents. Mobile messaging apps like WhatsApp are easy to use and economical, allowing children to maintain active communication with their parents. Frequent video calling and texting will undoubtedly give them companionship and emotional support.

During these daily calls, we can remind our parents that physical activity is as crucial as medication in controlling health conditions and achieving optimal health. Children can even stay in touch with their parents’ neighbours, building a social network to keep track of their parents’ daily activities and health.

Digital tools also make it easy to get the whole family connected across the generations. Many families now have chat groups, where family members share personal news. Most importantly, being contacted regularly reminds older people that they are valued and loved. It is often said that nothing makes a person healthier than having a happy heart.

Staying active inside the house is probably the safest option for older people as Covid-19 cases remain high. Housework activities include cooking, gardening, cleaning, and even being a caregiver to spouses or grandchildren. However, the prolonged pandemic can make housework monotonous, especially when social distancing has separated many older adults from younger family members. The good news is that digital tools offer new ways to encourage older adults to participate in housework.

If older adults are physically healthy, their children can encourage them to cook their own meals. With online applications, you can order fresh cooking ingredients to be delivered to your parents anywhere in the country. This will give them substantial tangible support to be physically active in the kitchen. Tangible support can also be given by sending them tools that make housework more interesting, for example, a new vacuum cleaner or a fancy mop. Sharing videos of DIY projects or interesting recipes can also motivate older adults to engage in housework. Spark a family competition, for example, such as a best fried rice competition or most beautiful plant, and share pictures to keep the motivation going.

We can also provide informational support via mobile phone messaging. Send daily messages related to physical activity to your parents, but do take the time to select information that they will find relevant and interesting. For example, if your father played golf before the pandemic, send him a link to a video showing indoor exercises to improve his golf swing. For a less mobile person, share tips about simple stretches that can be done sitting down. Such messages can keep older adults updated on the latest health information and how to stay active in these times. Family members can also assist older parents by installing health-related applications in their smart phones. These apps provide useful information and can also motivate older people to move more.

In a nutshell, there is no doubt that digitalised social support given by the family can empower older adults to be physically and mentally fit and henceforth lead a healthier life. How have you utilised digitalisation to provide social support for your parents or older relatives?





Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, Universiti Malaya

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Covid-19 , smartphones , social support , elderly


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