Practical Ways to Combat Isolation Using Meema Stories

These days the internet and mass media are filled with stories about protecting one another, especially our elders, from COVID-19.  And many of them also warn about the unintended consequences of keeping our parents or elderly friends safe, particularly the impact of social isolation and feelings of loneliness.  Almost without exception, narratives such as this one on STAT refer to the same simple solutions:  talk frequently on the phone, try video, and write letters or email too if possible.

But think about it:  if the solution were that easy, it would no longer be a problem.  Right?  Well, why isn't this suggestion sufficient?  Perhaps these simple solutions are simplistic and miss the point.

There are several reasons that the "just do it" approach fails us.  First of all, we should probably admit that it's unrealistic to expect remote communications to be as good as a face-to-face visit in the first place.  But also, we ought to ask questions about the nature of these phone calls, video conferences or emails.  What is the frequency and duration of the communications?  What should we talk about?  And finally, is the objective mere talk?  Or should we be looking for something else, like establishing or reinvigorating a social, emotional or intellectual "connection" of some kind?  How should we consider the effectiveness of communications like these with respect to realistic goals and realistic constraints?

Where are the pragmatic recommendations and tools that help us manage the conversation on these calls?  What would they have us do?

When I ask remote family members what's hard about regularly calling a parent or grandparent who is isolated and may be feeling lonely, they have plenty to tell me.  "It's difficult" or "It makes me uncomfortable" are common complaints.  They cite feeling "pressure" or "an obligation" to call and often confess that they don't feel "successful" or "productive" or even "appreciated" at times.  Most admit that, after months or years with ambiguous or infrequent real positive feedback, it's hard to keep it up.  Adult children who are caring for parents remotely (especially those who don't consider themselves 'caregivers' per se) have often told me that they have nothing to talk about and any attempts they make at encouraging more meaningful conversations have met with failure, sometimes catastrophic failure.  Most resort to small-talk and find it not all that satisfying.

It seems to us at Meema that one single missing element might at least partially address every one of these concerns:  having something meaningful and interesting to talk about, something of interest to both parties.  First, when everyone is engaged, calls, video calls, even email exchanges feel shorter, even if we allow them to last longer.  When people part feeling good about what has transpired in a conversation, they're more likely to want to engage again, and so it will happen more often.  Increasing frequency and duration makes establishing a social, emotional or intellectual "connection" possible, a connection that will endure beyond the limits of a call.  And over time we've experienced remote caregivers and their isolated parents actually getting better at making a "connection" at a distance and looking forward to it instead of avoiding it. 

This is precisely the point of a Meema Story: its sole purpose is to give you something fun, interesting and meaningful to talk about, something that's likely to help you connect with another person, a person you care for!  With only a hundred stories on the site, we're only just getting started.  But we envision a day when there will be thousands of stories and new stories published every day, new stories incorporating iconic images, audio and video on familiar themes.  We believe that our users are going to tell us with their behavior which stories are easiest to use and also which stories lead to the most meaningful connections.  We assume that these will not be the same for everybody... but that, over time, we'll be able to recommend similar stories on similar topics built on similar themes that are likely to produce similar outcomes for similar people.

Here's another idea, also from STAT, on how to use old movies on TV to stay active and remain engaged.  Of course, just watching old movies is not enough.  We know that watching television alone can even contribute to isolation, restlessness, anxiety and feelings of loneliness.  Instead, they suggest having remote family members "watch the same movie on the same day and afterwards catch up and talk about the movie."

This is an excellent way of finding something interesting to talk about.  But how can you really make this idea work?  This is easier, of course, if you share a Netflix or Amazon or Kanopy account.  But which movie?  And what can you do to make sure you can start and then sustain a conversation about some aspect of the film that's interesting and meaningful to both of you?

Once again, Meema Stories can help.  One way to discover and then cultivate a mutual interest in an old movie is to find and then share a Meema Story about the film first.  When you do, notice our conversation starters at the end of each Meema Story.  See what comes up in the conversation.  If either or both of you don't respond to the Meema Story, well, you've only invested 2 or 3 minutes, not an hour or two.  But if you like it, if it engages both of you, it will whet your appetite for even more.  Using the Meema Story as context, talk about your interests, observations, feelings, associations and, most importantly, your questions about the film before you watch it.  Using the interest and motivation generated from the Meema experience, you'll be more willing to watch the movie independently and you'll be more likely to follow through!

Finally, after you've both seen the movie, you can re-start the conversation again over Zoom with the familiar Meema Story about the film.  It will give you even more to talk about.

If you want to see an old movie and can't find a Meema Story on the subject, contact us using the link below and we'll see what we can do about that.