Wednesday 13 May 2015

Never Feel Alone Again


My parents turned 70 a few years ago. It was a wonderful celebration full of friends, laughter, food, and dancing the night away. I must admit even I, an only child who often ran away at the sight of parents’ friends, had a lot of fun. But though this celebration was great, by the very next day my parents had retreated and transformed back into their old habits — lonely, isolated, and comforted only by the glow of their TVs and iPads.

It wasn’t always like this. My parents used to be quite social and active, but when retirement hit it was as if their life came to a grinding halt. In the years since, I slowly watched them become more isolated and retreated. Sitting on the couch became their favorite pastime and the need to consume TV shows became their obsession. The worst part was watching their health slowly deteriorate, and their minds becoming numb. No matter what I tried to do to encourage activities in their lives, from Wii to FitBit to mind stimulation books, nothing seemed to work. My mother became more frail and developed muscular and gastric ailments that doctors couldn’t explain while my dad succumbed to his hypertension and worsening heart condition and ultimately receive an angioplasty. Worst yet was the toxic moods and environment that developed at home that made life increasingly uncomfortable for not only them but also family and friends.

I too began to wane and came close to giving up when something miraculous happened. My parents downloaded an app onto their smartphone called WeChat.

Years ago, I bought my parents smartphones, not because they were digital mavens or even cared about technology, but because it was the only type of phone available. For years they simply used it as a dumb-phone. No apps, no text messaging, only for calls. But as luck would have it, one of their friends introduced them to WeChat a year ago. It was as if someone breathed new life into them. The moment they started using this app, they simply couldn’t put it down. It completely transformed their life.

WeChat is a messaging application available for iPhone, Android, and others. Like similar apps out there, WeChat helps you easily connect with friends — allowing you send and receive messages, voice notes, photos, etc.

What made this app particularly relevant and exciting for my parents is something we in the industry call: NETWORK EFFECT. People are naturally social. The bigger the network of people using something, the more likely someone new will join.

This was particularly true for my parents and WeChat. It wasn’t the bells and whistles that my parents cared about, it was the simple fact that all of their friends were using it. Now all of a sudden, by downloading and installing one app, my parents had instant access to their friends. They no longer had to wait for someone to call or turn on the computer to check email. Their smartphone now linked them to an online community where their friends are always virtually present. They can choose to watch messages fly back and forth, engage in one-on-one conversations, or even socialize with entire groups at a time.

This level of engagement and participation started to completely transform their behavior. Age, retirement, and “home captivity” were no longer a barrier to social life. With their newfound virtual connectedness, they began to talk about daily life, share moments, and even self organize into activities. They started going out to more social gatherings, dancing parties, and even started hosting events at home. The variety of social engagements is simply amazing, a level that emailing and older platforms have simply never achieved.

For the first time in years, my parents are happier. They’re healthier. They now finally understand why the rest of society, for better or worse, is completely attached to their phones. For them, WeChat has become their obsession. For me, I can finally breathe a sigh of relief and not worry about them ever feeling lonely or isolated again.

WeChat is a great app and a great way to connect with people, but isn’t necessarily the right app for everyone. What’s most important is finding an app for you or someone you care about is first knowing what your friends and family are already using. Do that and it’s one step closer to never being alone and isolated again.

A few messaging apps options that will work for you - available on most iPhones via iTunes App Store and on Android smartphones via Google Play Store:
- WeChat  (Free, requires Data plan): a social messaging platform that allows you to easily message others one-on-one or in a group, share photos, and even send voice messages. Requires your friends and family to all use WeChat.
- Facebook Messenger (Free, requires Data plan): for those who already use and love Facebook. You already have a lot of friends on there so it's all the more natural to start a conversation.
- Google Hangouts (Free, requires Data plan): for those who email a lot and happen to use Gmail. Chances are most of your friends already use Gmail. Guess what - that means they're already on Hangouts too ready to start a conversation.
- Text Messaging (Free, requires SMS messaging plan): Yes it's "old fashioned", and while it's not an app per say and may not sound like anything special but sometimes you don't need the confusion of getting everyone to download and use something new. Start with just a text message to a friend or loved one. Everyone has a phone.

A healthier, better you begins with a conversation.

by Mike Hua
Mike is the co-founder of the start-up Ola Health, an anonymous support community for health, life, and caring for others, available on your smartphone.

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