Keeping Connected

Anne Cooper

10th April 2020

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Written by Anne Cooper​

Anne Cooper who is our Chief Clinical Digital Officer and was identified by the Nursing Times and HSJ as one of health and care's Social Media Pioneers is no stranger to using digital for social purposes. When Covid19 and 'safe distancing' changed everything, Anne naturally turned to digital to keep in touch with her not so digitally confident parents. After a twitter conversation with Dr Nikita Kanani who was also trying to find a solution to keep connected to her parents, we thought others might find Anne's story helpful.....  

My parents live 100 and 250 miles away from me, respectively.  That has always been OK until there is a pandemic and you realise that in addition to their distance away, they are all over 80 and vulnerable.  I’d never needed to help before; they were all self-sufficient, although last Christmas I had a few warning signs about our Mam, who, when I visited just seemed not to be coping quite so well.

The week before the Government announced what is now called lock-down, I had a sneaky feeling we were all going to be asked to stay at home and that meant well-being visits to East Cleveland and Shropshire were likely to be out of the question.  I had to think creatively about whether there were any options that would improve communication. I was keen that I should be able to ‘see’ them as well as speak to them.

In both cases I was lucky and they had broadband.  This proved to be the real enabler to improving communication.


Dad had never been tech savvy but with my encouragement over several years he has learnt how to email and can now surf the web on his tablet.  His ability to access YouTube has also been important in terms of his quality of life as he has lost the satellite availability during lockdown, limiting his access to his Skybox.  YouTube has been the saviour in maintaining his ability to entertain himself by watching old films – he loves a cowboy film!

Despite this, getting him better connected was still going to be a challenge as he is not skilled enough to be able to set anything up himself.

The options for Dad were a smartphone so we could FaceTime or some other connected device such as a Facebook Portal.  There are other similar solutions to the Facebook portal, but this seemed to me to be the solution with the best usability for Dad.

So, a Facebook portal was ordered to be dispatched to his home.  I knew that he would not be able to set it up himself, so I had to seek help.  On Facebook I searched for the local Facebook Community in his area and duly posted a plea for help.  There were many offers. One was a young woman whose children went to the school near Dad. She was amazing.  She called and helped Dad to get the equipment set up and we were away. It was luck, Dad had a dormant Facebook account.  This enabled him to have Facebook messenger. With the portal you either need to be a WhatsApp user or use Messenger. At present you must have a Facebook account to use Messenger on the portal.

Dad took to Messenger on the Facebook Portal Mini like a duck to water, surprising me.  I had also bought a portal for home which sits in the kitchen. This enables him to see into our lives in a way that a smartphone doesn’t do.  I can potter in the kitchen and chat with him. It somehow helps that it is not just a face on a screen, there is context and it draws him into our lives a little bit more.

Not only do we speak with him in this way but using Facebook as an address book has connected him more widely to a group of his friends.  One friend was a smartphone user but had no Facebook account, so we set her an account up called ‘RaysMate’. It has no information in it but enables her to connect with him via messenger.  She was tech savvy enough with a smartphone to be able to download the messenger app. It just took a bit of creative thinking and they are now connected.

So far this has been a great innovation and solution for Dad.  I am certain he feels more connected with both us and a wider network of friends and helpers and I feel better that I can see him in his home context.  He’s working out how to use the portal and connecting to more and more people such as his niece in Wales who he hasn’t seen for probably 50 years. It’s been brilliant and thank goodness for cowboy films on Youtube too!

Our Mam

Our Mam was a different ball game!  Initially she out and out refused to have the portal.  It seemed to be Facebook that she was reacting so negatively to (thanks media) despite my assurances that the camera wasn’t big brother (I hope this is true but needs must) and that a Facebook account can be created that holds no personal information.  She still refused. She is tech savvy too. She has been doing online shopping for years and uses her Kindle Fire to play games like Solitaire, so I was surprised at her strong response. These elderly folks can be tricky! 

As lockdown became more and more likely I was even more determined to sort this out.  There are no smartphones in their house either, so the use of WhatsApp was also not possible.  In the end I ordered a portal. By then we had to collect it from a store as they were no longer available for delivery and I drove it to Mam’s house.  In other words, I took the decision out of her hands! I was so lucky as this was the Sunday before Boris Johnson announced lockdown. Another few days and it’s likely that we would not have managed to sort this out.

In advance I had set them an ‘empty’ Facebook account up and connected them as ‘friends’ to me.  For both Mam and Dad, I have retained access to these Facebook accounts just in case there is a problem. It means I can log-in and try to sort it from home.  I tested everything before I left home, and I knew it was set up and worked.

At Mams it didn’t take us long to set up the portal – I had done the hard part at home – what was left to do was connecting it to the WiFi and showing them how to use it.  I was surprised at Mam who kept on insisting on stabbing the screen, like it was a button, rather than a touch sensitive device. Eventually we were away, and we trialled ringing her Grandson who duly answered and popped up on the screen!  Hurrah!

Both Mam and Dad in their respective locations are rural.  For Dad he seems to have good broadband but Mam’s is not so great.  It may well be that I could try to improve it but under the current circumstances it means that this is a tricky thing to do as I am not the account holder, so they are unlikely to deal with me.  I’m also wary of making their existing access worse as they are big TV watchers (who knew there were so many episodes of Midsummer Murders?!!). The impact is that the sound quality at our end is sometimes not brilliant.  It’s as clear as a bell at Dad’s but sometimes at our Mam’s it's like there is air whoosing around the room! But we manage 😊

They have got used to me ringing them on the portal but they have not taken to it in the same way Dad has.  They don’t ring anyone else and haven’t yet rang me on it. But I can see into their tiny house. They are both very much at risk with multiple chronic conditions and I like being able to see them properly!

So accelerating access to video calling has been a massive benefit already.   The Facebook Portal Mini has been reasonably priced (compared to a smartphone) and allows me access into the them and the rooms they live in as well as them feeling like they can see into our lives.

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Anne Cooper

Anne Cooper

Chief Clinical Digital Officer

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