Seniors on Skype

By Andy Johns

A diagnosis of terminal cancer for a beloved niece is never easy, especially for Marie, an 88-year-old resident of Abbeville Nursing Home.

When her niece, Velma, in Staten Island, New York, received a grim diagnosis in September 2014, Marie and Velma worried they would never see each other again, since neither was fit to travel. That’s when broadband technology and the creative staff at Abbeville Nursing home stepped in.

Using Skype, the two were able to talk face-to-face over video chat from 700 miles apart several times before Velma passed away in January. Marie died two months later.

“Those months that she was able to talk to Velma meant so much,” said Vickie Wickware of Abbeville, who was Marie’s best friend for 37 years. “It made Marie feel like she was still a part of Velma’s life. When she was able to Skype Velma and talk to her and see her, it gave her some hope.”

Activity Director Renee Bledsoe and Social Services Director Bridget White developed the idea of using video chats to connect families, which earned the Abbeville Nursing Home staff the 2013 South Carolina Spirit of Caring Award.

“We wanted to allow family members to be able to communicate with their loved ones when they live far away,” Bledsoe says.

Marie isn’t the only resident to benefit from this new kind of connection. Over the last two years, about 10 percent of residents have used the service, but White and Bledsoe are working to include others.

“In the past you had the phone, but the face of the future is computers,” White says.

White remembers one resident who has only seen a young nephew through Skype calls, since the family lives out West. “She really hadn’t been able to see or talk with them,” White says.

Video chatting sometimes gets through to residents when the staff cannot. One resident, whom the staff did not name, had become solitary, never wishing to leave her room to socialize. White and Bledsoe set up a “Skype buddy,” who was a consultant for the nursing home, and every Friday the resident and her Skype buddy talked. “This was probably a highlight of her time here,” Bledsoe says.

When Bledsoe and White were honored with the Spirit of Caring Award at a statewide meeting, they were able to Skype with the once anti-social resident so she could “meet” the audience. Even over the connection, the resident’s funny personality shined.

“She brought it home for us,” Bledsoe says. “Everybody was either crying or laughing.”

Warming up to the Web

The first resident to try video chatting was a 100-year-old lady who was able to talk with her granddaughter face-to-face through the computer.

“She said she had been around a long time and seen a lot of things, but by far this was the most interesting,” Bledsoe says. “It was really just amazing.”

The newness of computers and technology like Skype, the Internet’s leading video chat service, intimidated some residents at first. Many residents, most of whom are between the age of 80 and 100, were hesitant at first to get online. “This is technology that a lot of them have never experienced,” White says.

But they pick it up quickly and are genuinely pleased to see loved ones.

“They get to see the little grandchildren that they wouldn’t get to see,” White says.

One advantage, White says, is for the family and caregivers to be able to have care plan meetings via Skype. At times, it’s difficult for family members to come to the nursing home for the regularly scheduled meetings, but video calls allow them to meet with White and other caregivers face-to-face during a lunch break or other times when it’s convenient.

“It’s beneficial with everyday business,” White says. “They still want to be a part of the care plan meeting and actually see what’s going on. We can use Skype to do that. All they have to do is call us and set up a date and time. We set up the computer for the resident.”

The video calls have also come in handy during cold and flu season, when visitation can be limited to slow or stop the spread of sickness.

Originally, Bledsoe and White used one of their laptops to allow residents to chat, but demand grew enough to where they purchased a tablet for Skype calls. White has even used other apps on the tablet to translate for a few residents or family members who don’t speak English.

That kind of technology use, especially video chatting, is expected to increase as more people aging into the nursing home have technology skills.

“I could see us use this a lot more because the younger clients that get in are computer-savvy,” White says.
White credits the reliable high-speed connection from West Carolina and support from administrator Alan Hughes with encouraging and allowing the staff to be creative and innovative in serving patients. “When Mr. Hughes thinks or hears of something and it’s good for the residents, you better believe we’re going to get it,” White says.
Since Abbeville Nursing Home received the state award, other nursing homes in bigger cities have noticed the program and reached out.

“We have had other facilities that have incorporated this into their program,” Bledsoe says.