With more ways to communicate with each other than ever before, the world has never had it so good when it comes to human interaction. Or has it?
If you search for ‘technology and communication skills’ in Google, you’ll see many articles on how to use it to advancing your communications knowledge or how it can improve speech and reading in children.
But you will also find a number of articles and research papers exploring whether new technology, or the abundance of it, is actually hampering communication in society.
That might sound rather extreme, but it’s fair to say there has always been a nagging feeling that too much technology might be affecting our ability to communicate the ‘old-fashioned’ way.
This is important too because, no matter how much digital technology advances, we are still and will always be biological creatures and we desire human contact.
Digital communication has opened up so many possibilities to so many people and it’s certainly not going away, but we may be in danger of forgetting some of the basics.
Have our older residents found the balance?
We encourage the use of technology at all our Retirement Villages. Why wouldn’t we? Various advancements have enabled our residents to do things they wouldn’t have been able to many decades ago were they the same age.
Things such as internet shopping, DAB radio, Skype and email allow residents to keep their independence and organise events and clubs too, as well as stay in touch in with family and friends.
Residents at Elmbridge Village have formed a Computer Club and recently launched their own village intranet – an online service accessible only by local residents and dedicated to the goings on in the village. So they certainly aren’t shy of new tech.
But here’s the thing – residents very much see technology as a tool, and specific tools for specific purposes. They aren’t slaves to technology – you will rarely find members of the elderly community looking at a screen in their every spare moment.
In fact, technology in all its forms (don’t forget, the telephone is a communication technology just the same as the iPad is) is a means to an end in most cases.
Yes, the residents will use Skype to speak to relatives, but much of the time technology is used to organise and encourage further physical interactions in addition to the already active social lives in the villages. Websites, texts or emails aren’t the endpoint of any interaction, it’s simply the method by which residents may arrange something much more meaningful, such as a coffee morning or musical event.
Community is at the heart of what we offer at Retirement Villages, but it cannot be built or forced and it’s certainly not something we can artificially create. It’s the residents that make up the vibrant, active communities we have.
They are the ones who have set up computer clubs, film clubs, sports clubs and much much more.
Can we learn from this?
This article is in no way meant to discredit new communication technologies or how today’s society use them and whether there is a detrimental impact. That is a much wider (and far more complex) debate.
But there does seem to be something very appealing about the way our residents and other elderly people interact with technology – use it if it’s useful, but not at the expense of spending real quality time with friends and family.
In our bid to become ever more efficient and speedy at everything we do, partly by digitising our communication, small-talk or vocal communication in our communities seems unnecessary.
But according to Psychology Today magazine, small-talk at work can actually improve productivity and the Samaritans has even encouraged the use of small talk to help vulnerable people in its ‘Small Talk Saves Lives’ campaign.
So much of what we now do is digitised and it need not be. In fact, it’s worryingly habitual – we might send an email to colleague who sits next to us, or a throwaway text to a friend whom we haven’t spoken to in ages. Often, these interactions would be much more meaningful (and sometimes quicker!) if we spoke up.
As shown by our residents, you can build communities, brighten up someone’s day, or even start a music club with just a little natter.
A Skype video call is a wonderful thing, but it cannot replicate the warmth you get with a face-to-face meeting, small-talk on the bus, or a smile to a stranger on the other side of the road.
I hope we are not in danger of missing out or losing these small, but vital, social interactions. We can certainly learn a lot about balance and community from our retired citizens – perhaps it’s time we start implementing those learnings.