13 ideas for staying connected — from a distance

Finding creative ways to bond with family and friends can help you stay positive today, while protecting your health.

Laura Quaglio
Mature woman using a tablet.

There’s no getting around it: This pandemic has put our closest relationships to the test, whether we’re separated by six feet or by 600 miles. Even hunkering down together has its issues. 

“Family and friendship dynamics have been turned inside out, upside down,” says Ken Druck, Ph.D., a psychologist and author who specializes in family relationships.

“This new normal has provided tremendous challenges, but it has also provided tremendous opportunities,” says Druck. “Pushing the reset button on how we convey our love from 6 feet away or on a FaceTime call is one of them.”

The Personal Benefits of Social Connections

Learning to navigate the “new normal” of relationships is well worth the effort, even if it feels awkward at first. A recent survey by the Institute for Family Studies found that most Americans rate their personal relationships as the leading thing that gives meaning to life.

It turns out that being well-connected may also help us live longer. A lack or loss of social connections is worse than obesity, high blood pressure or smoking when it comes to your health, according to information from Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. On the flip side, having a strong social network may help increase your longevity, boost immunity and aid in recovery from a health problem, note Stanford researchers.

And the more, the merrier: In 2020, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that adults aged 65-plus who had a greater variety of social connections were also more physically active, more cognitively fit and had a more positive mood, compared to those with weak social ties.

The takeaway? Your social network may put you in a better position to weather the rest of the pandemic — and feel more enjoyment for the rest of your life.

Even though it’s important to practice social distancing — really the better term is physical distancing, says Druck — it’s equally important to find creative ways to maintain and even grow your relationships. Try the ideas below to stay close.

Build Stronger Bonds with Technology

Spending time with family and friends with the help of technology can be a great way to help boost your morale and quality of life when it’s not safe to be together physically, says Druck. His long-standing men’s group, consisting of eight of his closest buddies, has continued to meet via video conferencing every month, and he visits regularly with his grandkids and sister using video calls.

If you’re not familiar with these technologies, call someone in your circle of family and friends and ask for their help to get started. They can give you some tech tips and help make things like this happen: 

Arrange a walk-and-talk. Make a date with a faraway friend or one of your kids to go for a walk “together.” At the arranged time, pop in your earbuds, call your pal and step outside for your walk.  

Host a cooking date. Bring your smartphone, video-calling device or even your laptop with a web camera into the kitchen. While you cook, you can offer helpful tips to your pal on the other end of the line, just like you’re on a cooking show. 

Similarly, you can invite a friend or family member to have dinner with you — from your own kitchen tables. Settle on a time to sit down for the meal, then each of you props your video-calling device on your table for the call. It’s a nice way to make an ordinary weeknight meal feel special.

Throw a watch party. Many streaming services allow you and a friend to start a movie at the same time but in different locations. Don’t forget the popcorn! 

Give Mom and Dad a break. If you have young grandkids — or a neighbor with young children — offer to read the kids a bedtime story. All you need is a way to make a video call and a good picture book. 

A healthy lady on a walk
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Getting Closer from 6 Feet Away

Thinking about getting together with family or friends? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says there are a few good ways for older adults to socialize safely — all dependent on current infection rates in your area, of course.

Meeting each other outside or in a large, well-ventilated room is one CDC suggestion. Also try to stick with those who live in your community or county. Agreeing to wear face coverings and maintain a space of at least 6 feet apart is a must. And avoid sharing objects, like serving utensils.

If you want to do more than chat over a cup of coffee, use some of these ideas to enjoy the company:

Take a neighborhood walk. Make it a visual scavenger hunt by taking along a list of things to look for along the way.

Host a socially distant picnic. If hosting on your driveway, you can map out six-foot squares with chalk, so everyone knows where to sit, or set up chairs 6 feet apart in your backyard. Instead of serving food family-style, consider having everyone bring their own food. 

Play a socially distant game. Tennis, pickleball and horseshoes are good options. These keep you apart naturally. (But still be careful to sanitize your hands and don’t touch your face.) 

Hunkering Down Together? Work as a Team

A client of Druck’s is sheltering in place with his extended family. Recalling the joy he had as a child with his own family, he decided to break out a jigsaw puzzle for the first time in 50 years. The entire household got involved, joking with one another, telling family stories and helping the young kids sort pieces by color. 

The new found time many of us have experienced during the outbreak has opened up opportunities to rediscover simple joys and tap into our creativity, explains Druck. The following family-focused ideas are also worth a try. If you live alone, many of these can be adapted for socially distanced get-togethers:

  • Make a family member’s favorite recipe. When you serve it, ask the group to share a memory of a fond experience with that person.
  • Plant and tend a flower or herb garden together.
  • Restore a family heirloom — or create a new one. 
  • Take out old family picture albums or videos. Or work together on a new video.
  • Start a keepsake journal.
  • Design a family calendar, marked with fun upcoming events or a safe road trip. If there aren’t any, brainstorm some. 

It’s no accident that many of these activities have a nostalgic element. Tapping into our happy past can deepen our current connections and help us develop new sources of connectedness, notes 2015 research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

“We’re living in vulnerable and volatile times,” says Druck, “but these are also times of great opportunity. Everyone has to find out what works best for them, what’s safe and reimagine their best possible future.”

Safer at home 

During the pandemic, Renew’s health tools are a valuable resource. Use them to help you manage stress, eat well and keep your mind and body active while at home. To learn more , sign in to your plan website and go to Health & Wellness. Not a member? Learn more here.

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