It’s good to talk
Being out of physical touch with the family can throw up problems. For older people it can be lonely. More 50% of over 75s live alone  and, on Christmas Day half a million elderly people have spent the entire day without any human contact . It can also be a big worry for parents not knowing what young people are up to. Then there’s the feeling that grandparents can get when it seems grandchildren are growing up without knowing what you look like.
But, using modern technologies to keep in touch can help give everyone a bit of mutual assurance. As well as email there is video software like Skype that allows you to see and talk to each other. Then there are apps (applications) like WhatsApp or Vine that allow you to text or send images or videos for free.
These technologies all use the internet and you can access them using anything that connects to it – a mobile phone, i-pad or other tablet, a lap top computer or PC. Some of them are applications, or ‘apps’ that you can only use on a ‘smart’ mobile phone like an Iphone or one that uses either the Android operating system.
Mastering new technology may seem a little daunting if it’s not in your blood, like it is the younger generation. But it can be done. In 2000 just 11% of one person households of people of pensionable age were online, in 2008 that was 37% . Get a teenager to show you how – working out how to use technology can be a great grandparent/grandchild bonding experience. If there are none handy try online guides from BBC and Google, or ask about lessons at the local library.
Seeing baby’s face
When new mum Donna wants to give the family an update on how baby Lilly is doing she gets in front of the family big-screen TV and turns on the Skype. Then she and Lilly can speak face-to-face with either her dad in Taiwan or her husband’s brother in Australia.
“Since Lilly was born everyone has been missing home, they want to see her growing up and don’t want her not to know who they are,” says Donna. “Skype calls mean that they get to talk to Lilly and she can see who they are and doesn’t forget them. We Skype most weekends and we have big family sessions at Christmas and New Year.”
Skype is a software application that allows users to make audio and video calls over the Internet, you can also send video messages. If you and your friends and family have Apple products, you can use their own alternative called Facetime. Google Hangout is similar and allows multiple participants. Viber is another alternative.
Keeping uncles and aunties in the loop
If you’re living overseas you can share your daily lives with the folks back home by posting updates on Facebook. The social networking site allows you to ‘check in’ to show who you’re with and where, to post photos you’ve just taken on your phone and to share your thoughts, either with everyone or with someone you ‘message’ in private. Then there are photosharing sites that family members can download and print off pictures from, like Shutterfly and DropShots. Another great way to keep those at home up-to-date is to keep a blog. This can be perfect for older members of the family who may appreciate the longer writing style. This is a bit more time consuming but WordPress is a good place to start.
Getting the daily update from mum
Texting internationally can be expensive, especially on a regular basis. But there are ways you can do it for free. Spanish born Allison says she wouldn’t have managed the move to live in Yorkshire if it hadn’t been possible to keep in touch with her 40 year-old mum by text. Allison uses WhatsApp on her phone which means you can text someone else who uses the app for free, even on pay-as-you-go contracts.
“Mum is as technologically advanced as an ant! But it really helps us remain close as it is so expensive to call or text, whereas WhatsApp is free and we can get in touch every time something reminds us of one another – like a song coming on the radio or any useless information we want to pass on, like Jon Bon Jovi’s birthday!”
Tracking down teenagers
Parenting a teenager can be a stressful business, not least because often they just won’t answer their phones or tell you what they’ve been up to. One solution that 38-year old Penny has found is to use the teenager’s favourite app Snapchat. This allows you to take a photo and then send it with a caption to someone who can then only open it once and for a few seconds.
“It sounds mad, but for some reason both Olivia and her friends are more likely to open Snapchat than they are to answer the phone or text back. It’s also quite funny to get these weird shots of whatever they’re up to at the time. When she was away at camp I got a whole load of fun snaps that let me know what she’s been doing.
“Another way I find out what she’s up to is when she posts a Vine on Facebook. There have been some really funny ones from when she went away for the weekend with a family friend.”
Vine is an Apple app that allows you to make short, video clips and edit them into a short story – another app that you can this with is Instagram.
Sending love to grandpa
Some members of the older generation still prefer to get something in the post rather than online. Hugmail turns digital photos stored on your mobile, computer and the social networking site Facebook into real printed postcards and sends them anywhere in the world for just a couple of pounds. Some granddads are embracing the modern world though – Allison has got hers onto Facebook so he can use its free instant messaging.
“We signed up my Grandad to Facebook not too long ago, he’s 61. But it can take him about a month to reply to a message. He also tries to make his typical Grandad jokes, but they come across even more cringe-worthy in writing!”
Cool hang outs for cousins
Fifteen year-old Tiffany in Fife only sees her cousin Rosie in York once a year, so the rest of the time they hook up on online gaming sites. Recently they both played an online version of the teen hit movie The Hunger Games and sometimes they make an arrangement to meet online to play Call of Duty on the Xbox.
“It’s cool to still be able to do things with Rosie even though I can’t get to actually see her,” says Tiffany.
You don’t need to be Einstein to use these keep-in-touch technologies and – after the initial layout for the phone or computer and your connection contract – most of them don’t cost a penny. So, even if you’re a bit of a technophobe, it’s well worth mastering some of them for the peace of mind and mutual assurance they can bring to members of the family, whatever their age.
1 British Market Research Bureau, 2011
2 Help the Aged, 2007
3 Office of National Statistics, 2009