In pursuit of clear communication in a pandemic and beyond

By Rob Fountain
CEO, Age UK Gloucestershire

Communication is critical to well-being.

It is how we find out things that can help us. It is how we express choices about things affecting us. It is how we establish meaningful connection with others.
The current Covid19 pandemic has brought the importance of good quality communication to the fore.

At the start of the national lockdown, the Age UK Gloucestershire HelpTeam were inundated with calls. By mid-March we were receiving double our average daily amount of enquiries.

Even with daily government briefings on the TV and nobody talking about anything other than coronavirus, people contacted us wanting to know what was happening, what did it mean for them. Their enquiries indicated confusion, uncertainty, arguably that the main messages were not clear.

Contacting our team was about checking understanding and getting reassurance. Communication at best is after all a two-way process.

As lockdown continued, the impact of reduced social contact started to show. In our Raise Your Voice survey, conducted in the summer to capture experiences of the first lockdown, there was unsurprisingly a report of a considerable decrease in the amount of contact with friends and family. There was also a direct correlation between reduced social contact and overall happiness.

When the data was further analysed, it appears whilst for some there was more contact with new people and local neighbours, it was a reduction in meaningful relationships and the deeper connections with family and friends, which affected older people’s feelings of isolation and happiness during this period.
Not all social contact is the same. We need and value contact that is meaningful and at a deeper level.

The same goes for communication. We get less from communication that stays superficial, than for communication where we can really feel heard, or can safely speak our personal truths.

During the lockdown, one response to physical distancing was an increase in digital communication. Who had heard of Zoom before March, let alone used it to speak to a friend, to a professional, or to host a quiz with family?

More of life went on-line. That kept many things going. It had some real positives too – I personally made connections that I would never have been able to make without technology making it possible to meet people around the world.

Digital communications are though distinct and not always effective. Covid has caused a deepening of a digital divide – with those not on-line having a different experience to those who are.

In our survey of 782 older people, over 600 were regularly using the internet. Stereotypes that older people don’t or cannot use digital communication are hopefully being seen as the ageist nonsense they are.

However, there remain a cohort who are not online and choose not to be. Defaulting to digital for communication and transactions will exclude these people and alternative options need to be made available.

Analysis of our survey revealed a deeper insight into the limitations of digital communication. There was a direct correlation in our survey findings between those who were using the internet more and those who felt that information about the virus was confusing.

There may be a number of issues wrapped up in this, but one cause is likely to be the volume of information available on-line and the number of rabbit-holes that one can disappear down. Take away the ability to check things with friends and family and the result is feeling less informed not more.

The conclusion we have to reach is that access to online communication is not an end in itself. We need to support quality of communication, not just quantity, and we need to think more as a society about how we communicate more effectively digitally so everyone has a better chance of a positive experience from the potential that technology brings.

So, the pandemic has highlighted some of the issues around clear communication.

Perhaps the most visible barrier to good communication coronavirus has brought is the face mask. Removing mouths and lips from view, reducing faces to eyes, and muffling speech impacts on the communication experience for all of us.

For older people who have hearing impairments, those with dementia, those for whom English is not a first language, or who otherwise rely on lip reading to improve their understanding, wearing face masks can significantly reduce the quality of communication and bring with it all the negative impacts of poor communication mentioned above.

Crucially: that is not a weakness of the older person, it is a symptom of the need for us all to wear masks.

As such, the remedy sits with all of us. Wearing a clear face mask can improve the quality of communication for a large number of people in our county. Non-clear face masks can also add to feelings of isolation and disconnection we’re all feeling. So with clear masks as effective against the virus as non-clear ones, the choice is, well, clear.

Age UK Gloucestershire are pleased to join the Barnwood Trust and other local partners in the Let’s Be Clear campaign for clear face masks and clearer communication across Gloucestershire.

17th November 2020

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