Physically separated, socially connected

Contributed by Ron Baecker, an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, co-author of The COVID-19 Solutions Guide and author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives (OUP, 2019).

My family is widely separated. I live in Canada. My brother-in-law, niece, nephew, and their families are in New Jersey and Pennsylvania; my cousins, their children, and their families are in Argentina, Spain, England, and on both coasts of the USA. Typically, I visit my niece and nephew once or twice a year; I manage a trip to Buenos Aires or Bilbao, Spain, about every 3 years. But not recently. I therefore Facetime with either my nephew or my niece almost every week. We also are about to have our fourth global family Zoom. This started out to celebrate individual birthdays, with great spirit and feeling of bringing the family closer together. The next event will celebrate 3 birthdays — ages 78, 41, and 9 — and a recent birth in the family in London. The 9-year-old birthday event will see us participating in a day-long scavenger hunt. What fun!

I asked three friends about their experiences.

The year 2020, while physically isolated, allowed me to be far more socially connected than ever, thanks mainly to Zoom, joining groups online I could not reach before. This Christmas, instead of 25 for turkey dinner and 15 sleeping over, we had just our granddaughter with her husband and our two great-grandchildren. But we had a Zoom caroling evening with 30 members of the family across Canada, with hilarious cacophony! Christmas morning stockings for the children, and then presents, were attended by their Grandma (our daughter) and their Aunt on my laptop on the coffee table. Another branch of the family introduced the children to two elves they made with their names on them, yet to be delivered. In a smaller Zoom call, our son sang a Johnny Cash cover song about their camping trip around British Columbia. Truly a family celebration!

Leslie Mezei, author of A Tapestry of Survival

The pandemic forced us to move online with very little notice. One week I was teaching in person. The next week I was in a virtual class with physician students attending from the COVID-19 frontlines. Instead of summer travels, I delivered virtual summer courses to undergraduate students who lost summer internships and needed to fill their summer months. I pivoted my interactive in-person class to online. In class, students worked on group projects designing solutions for real users’ needs. Students reported that they felt very connected to me their instructor, their TAs, and each other. Since the start of the pandemic, I have taught more than 350 students whom I may never meet in-person. The students have been attending my classes from all over the world. One of my TAs with whom I have worked since May reminded me that we had never met in person. This information surprised me. I had not noticed the difference in the strong social bonds we had formed remotely. Virtual events have been booming. I can attend a researchers’ meeting in the UK and then immediately join a conversation with colleagues hosted from New York. I have attended many virtual conferences that delivered valuable content at significantly reduced costs. There is no going back. Virtual is here to stay. Virtual is now a more viable option than before COVID. I’m anxiously waiting for the vaccine so I can hug my mother who lives down the street and my niece who is growing up so fast. I look forward to gathering with my siblings and their families in the cramped dining room of my childhood home to enjoy my mother’s delicious home cooking. 

Ilona Posner, User Experience Consultant and Educator,

The Covid crisis makes it impossible for my four siblings to visit our 94-year-old mother.  She recently had a stroke resulting in loss of language and cognition.  She now requires a caregiver to help with all activities of daily life.  Still, she recognizes people and expresses love.  We are all grateful that she can stay in her own home for now.  I live in the same city and manage her care and connection with others.

My brothers and sister miss her very much and want to connect, but they are seniors themselves and technologically incurious.  Brother #1, my older brother, lives in Montreal and Toronto.  As far as I can tell, he communicates with family exclusively by text message.  My sister lives in British Columbia.  She does not have a cell phone, but is able to use Skype on her desktop.  Brother #3, my youngest brother, lives in Jerusalem.  Despite having a dozen tech-savvy children, he only uses Google Meet.  Brother #2 is the most flexible of all of us:  he uses an iPhone, can FaceTime, and has a Zoom account.  I’m a late adopter of the iPhone and have been hesitant to download any apps.

I tend to visit my mother every evening from about 6:30 to 8:00 p.m., but each sibling has asked me to schlep my laptop over to my mother’s house at their preferred time and to use their preferred method of communication.  I suggested they just phone her.  Even though she can’t say much, she would probably enjoy hearing from them.  Video, however, makes them much more real to her.  When she sees them, she can feel their caring and presence much more than hearing their voices on the telephone.

I recently became a little more pro-active in making video calls possible for my mother.  I added Skype to my iPhone and arranged a time to call my sister.  Before Covid my sister would spend two to four weeks every year with my mother.  As soon as my mother saw her on my iPhone, she said, “When are you coming.  I want you to visit.”  There was immediate recognition.

I used FaceTime to call Brother #2.  As soon as my mother sees his face on my phone, she says, “Sing.”  She loves to hear him sing her favourite songs.  He even thoughtfully arranged a FaceTime call with one of the caregivers and played and sang.

I put Google Meet on my phone and tested it.  Setting up a meeting was easy, Brother #3 responded immediately to my invite saying he would stay up and wait for my invitation. (Sadly, the last time my mother saw his picture, she said, “Who the hell is that?”.) I managed to connect Brother #3 and my mom with great success. The call included brother #2, and two Israeli children who speak excellent English, and who sang to my mom’s great enjoyment.

Technology is great, but people are idiosyncratic about their preferences.  I’m glad that I got over my reluctance to accommodate my siblings, and I’m sure my mother feels happy to be more connected to most of her children.

Lil has been teaching since 1974, retired when Covid moved classes online. 


How and with whom can you be more connected and less isolated as we continue in lockdown for the rest of the winter? How can you overcome the very tangible hurdles faced by family members, teachers, and students?

 The COVID-19 Solutions Guide is a great resource to consult for your pandemic concerns. Click here to buy the book.

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