Elders 2.0

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A screenshot from the authors’ conversation wih Dalia and Menachem, using the WhatsApp app
A screenshot from the authors’ conversation with Rachel and Moshe, using the Zoom software

Elderly 2.0: Anthropological Responses

Authors: Yeela Zafrani and Sivan Ziv are 3rd-year students in the School of Behavioral Sciences at the Academic College of Tel Aviv – Jaffa. This essay is part of their larger research project for the Digital Ethnography Seminar, taught and supervised by Dr Regev Nathansohn.

Fieldsite: Israel

“It is the way of the world that the older generation helps and guides the younger generation. But now that nature has changed, the rules are changing and we need to learn anew.”

This quote comes from a septuagenarian couple, in response to our questions about the situation precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic, which is changing much of what we know. The pandemic, which spread quickly and affected significant proportions of the world’s population, with no cure or vaccine available as yet, is the backdrop for our interviews with two couples in their 70s. The interviews were conducted as part of an ethnographic study on intergenerational relationships. Here, we present some of what they have related to us during the interviews.

Dalia and Menachem (the names of all interviewees in this text are aliases) live in an urban private home in Israel’s central district; Rachel and Moshe live in an apartment building in the same city. Both couples told us about the tremendous difficulties they have experienced as a result of the government’s lockdown orders. Their age places them at a higher risk of developing severe Covid-19 illness, so going out for even the smallest of errands should be avoided as much as possible.

Both couples conveyed to us their heartfelt thanks for talking to them. They repeatedly mentioned looking forward to our weekly conversations and reported that the meetings made them feel good. According to Dalia, “It’s good to have someone to talk to and someone who really wants to listen. It’s heartwarming, although it’s not the same as talking to our family. It’s fun to talk to younger people and to see how much they care. We hope and pray that this difficult time will pass quickly and that we’ll all return to our normal lives.”

Digital immigrants in the technological era

Over recent weeks, we conducted several online interviews with the two couples using the Zoom and WhatsApp apps. These interviews revealed that one of the main difficulties for these elderly people at this time is the challenge of using technology. Dalia and Menachem told us about their online struggles to order medications and groceries. Menachem said, “The healthcare providers informed the public that members over the age of 60 would be able to order home deliveries of their prescription medications, but our prescriptions are in print rather than digital. We called the support center, and were instructed to contact our physician using the designated mobile phone app, and request him to convert the prescriptions into digital ones. How would we know how to do that? My wife’s medication supply ran out three days ago, and I’m nearing the end of mine.”

Older adults of Dalia and Menachem’s age are probably no strangers to this obstacle. Technological advances have turned them into digital immigrants, scrambling to perform tasks they formerly accomplished independently and skillfully. Dalia described their attempts to adjust to the new reality: “We call our children and ask them to do it for us, but these tasks are time consuming. Our children are at home themselves with the grandchildren, and it’s difficult for them to find the time to talk to a support representative on the phone for half an hour in order to get a password for the HMO app […]. We understand the reasoning behind the instructions given by the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Health, as well as the wish to protect seniors. However, we cannot be left alone without help this way. What would we do if we did not have children and grandchildren to help us? How do elderly people without any family cope? Just thinking about it makes me want to cry.”

Like them, Rachel and Moshe are also struggling with the use of technology these days: “We are having trouble with technology – anything to do with prescription drugs, doctor’s appointments, paying utility bills. Our biggest problem is with the HMO and medication because we both take numerous prescription drugs and are at high risk. We are not allowed to visit the clinic or the pharmacy, so everything must be done through the mobile app, but we do not know how to use it. All this technology is for younger people, not for older adults; we have trouble operating things that young people do in a flash.”

The problem with using technology was clearly evident when we conducted the interviews themselves. On each occasion, we were asked to explain to our interviewees how to access the Zoom application, how to operate their camera and microphone, how to hold the smartphone so that we would be able to see them, etc. The couples told us that they find it extremely difficult to join video meetings, that their children and grandchildren complain that they are out of camera range, that they cannot be heard, or that they in turn are unable to see and hear their children and grandchildren. This situation has left them feeling extremely frustrated.

Staying connected in isolation

The greatest challenge for Rachel and Moshe is that they miss their families. This issue came up in each of our interviews with them. Moshe told us: “We miss our children and our grandchildren very much, and hope this will all end soon.” While they communicate with their children and grandchildren through video chats, they feel this is a poor substitute for meeting them in person. Rachel says, “It is very difficult to communicate with our children and grandchildren, we see them on video only when they are the ones who call us, we do not know how to initiate video chats, we only know how to call them on the phone. I had a difficult day today,” she adds, “I cannot meet my children and grandchildren; video is not the same as meeting someone face to face, hugging, kissing, touching. What does a mother and grandmother do if not hug her child and grandchild?”

At the same time, Moshe told us, they are feeling more appreciated and loved than ever, with daily calls from their children and grandchildren. For both couples, all social interactions are restricted to the form of telephone conversations, on which Rachel commented: “We keep in touch with our friends only through phone calls, but it is very hard to maintain a relationship this way. A phone call is no replacement for seeing someone face to face.”

Things became even more challenging in April, on Passover, one of the major Jewish holidays. Traditionally, Passover eve is a time for families to gather for a ritual meal. This year, the government imposed a curfew, limiting the gathering to members of the immediate family only – and excluding grandparents. This separation proved to be extremely difficult for senior citizens. Rachel and Moshe said: “We tried to be joyous, but our hearts were aching. We are used to celebrating Passover together with all our children and grandchildren, and this year it was only the two of us and it was very difficult.” Dalia and Menachem related their family’s solution: “We live in a private home with a yard; ahead of Passover eve, our granddaughter came over and left a laptop with the Zoom app installed on it in the yard. We stood far apart as she explained to us how to connect. And indeed, we celebrated the holiday together, seeing our grandchildren and children through the computer’s camera, reading the Haggadah, and singing all the traditional songs. It wasn’t perfect, but it was definitely better than being by on our own.”

Another issue that came up during our interviews with the two couples was that of getting along without professional help for household management. Moshe and Rachel told us their refrigerator had broken down, and a week later, their television set stopped working. Unable to get the help of technicians, and with family members prohibited from visiting, they were unable to fix the appliances. Without television for several days, they found it even harder to keep busy. The refrigerator malfunction created another kind of difficulty, because it had to be fixed quickly, and when a technician arrived to do so, the couple had to shut themselves in one of the other rooms to maintain social distancing. Not being able to monitor the actions of a stranger in their own home made the couple anxious, as Rachel told us: “Having this happen now, of all times, was completely absurd. We have had this refrigerator for more than a decade, and it never malfunctioned. When the technician arrived, it took him nearly an hour to find the problem and fix it. We were in another room until he left, speaking with him through the door, which was a strange and unpleasant experience. It’s disconcerting to have someone, especially a stranger, in your house when you’re not next to that person.”

Elderly, all of a sudden

Both couples’ normal lives are active – they meet friends on a daily basis, some of them still work, they go out to see movies, theatre shows, and concerts and dine, keeping a dynamic and diverse schedule. The coronavirus pandemic led to their instantaneous categorization as “elderly” by government standards, simply because they are over 70 years of age. This definition was completely alien to them. Both couples stressed the difficulty in being suddenly labelled “elderly” when their own perception of themselves was so different. They were forced to come to terms with this new branding. Menachem told us: “One day, without early warning, we were suddenly told; ‘You are old, you cannot leave your home, you cannot perform the most trivial tasks.’ And who knows when would be the next time we will be able to do them? It forces us to accept a reality we are unfamiliar with, and that we don’t want to accept.”

This was further manifested in diminished motor and physical activity. Moshe and Rachel live in an average-sized apartment; during the self-isolation period, they found themselves spending long stretches of time sitting down and in a state of severe physical inactivity. Moshe suddenly found himself either sitting or lying down throughout the day and night, in contrast to his normal active routine, and experienced leg and back pains, which he attributed to the lack of physical activity. “It is very hard for me to sit at home all the time, my legs have forgotten how to walk,” he relayed to us. They told us about their solution – organizing their house. Rachel described: “We organized all our closets, sorted through all our stuff, clothes included, and organized the refrigerator. We cleaned our house more thoroughly than any cleaner we’ve ever employed. The house is now clean and tidy, and this had the added benefit of allowing us to move about. Moreover, we are quite tired after a day of cleaning, and that’s great.” Dalia and Menachem, on the other hand, live in a private home with a garden, so their situation is considerably better. “How long can you sit inside without moving? So we go out to the garden and walk around a little. I use a small exercise weight that I hold while walking to strengthen my muscles,” Dalia said.

Combatting the pernicious effects of protective isolation

Despite the new challenges of life during this period of confinement, both couples stress the positive, hopeful elements that emerged at this time. The need to use technology has forced them to gain new knowledge about their smartphones and about communication channels such as Zoom and WhatsApp. After nearly six weeks of having to fend for themselves, they consider themselves to be “experts,” which would have been unlikely otherwise. “Who would have believed we would become familiar with all these innovations,” says Dalia, “formerly, I was wary of touching my phone and computer so that I wouldn’t accidentally delete something; today, I’m not as afraid. When there is no other alternative, you dare to do things you otherwise wouldn’t dare to do. And all in all, this technology is not entirely bad.”

Technology is not the only thing they have been learning about. Our interviewees reported reading books, articles, and Wikipedia entries, as well as accessing other sources of knowledge and personal enrichment. Some of them learned about military history, some about the stock market, and some found new recipes to try for the grandchildren when things return to normal. “Every day I go on Wikipedia and look for a new topic that interests me. I like learning new things, and our busy schedule has kept me away from that. Now I finally have the time to read, and I also teach what I learn,” says Menachem.

Moshe told us he audits courses at Bar-Ilan University, and during the isolation period, he receives recorded Zoom lessons from the university, which he watches during the day: “I’m glad for the opportunity to enrich myself. All lectures are recorded and I can watch them using Zoom. Rachel sometimes joins me.” When we asked him how he copes with the technology, he replied: “Sometimes I can hear but not see, and sometimes I can see but not hear, but overall, I’m OK with it.” Moshe’s words support the fact that the current situation is forcing older adults to hop on the technological wagon, instead of watching it hurtle forward faring only the young. Two months ago, their response to questions about this technology would have probably been “Why do I need it?” Today their answer is somewhat different. They need to use the technology to connect with their families, run their households, order prescription drugs, and more. The times have forced them to pass the barrier and start learning.