October 1st, 2015

Smartphone summer

This was the summer of my first smartphone. I wasn’t the last holdout among my friends and family, but I was close.

My wife is going for the record of having the oldest flip phone on the face of the planet but she convinced me that it was time for one of us to join the rest of the world in having instant access to everything we want to know and communicate to others.

Information technology has developed so quickly over the past 50 years that it is difficult to believe that we didn’t even have flip phones until 1996. Of course, I didn’t have a flip phone in ’96 but made do with a sleek rotary dial number tethered to a cord on the kitchen wall.

I love my smartphone and apologize to anyone who may have tried to call me and got only my voicemail. I just learned that I somehow put the device into “do not disturb mode.”

That problem has been resolved but I am still planning to attend one of the free tutorials at the telephone store. In the meantime, I am learning by doing and by asking questions of anyone with more experience than I have in these matters.

That’s just about everyone. My first lesson came from a friend’s nine-year old granddaughter who took me through every one of the phone’s features in a whirlwind demonstration that left me with vague memories of what the phone could do and no idea how to make any of it happen.

That I have waited until now to use a smartphone does not surprise me given my history with telephones. The one thing that we did not have in our house during my formative years, besides central heating, was a telephone.

Why would we need one after all? We lived across the street from a dance hall that had a phone booth just outside the door. We routinely gave out the number to anyone who might want to reach us along with a special code – three rings, a pause, and two more – to signal that the call was for one of us.

This system worked fine in the summer months when the windows were open and we could hear the phone ringing. I’m not sure what we did the rest of the year. All of that changed when I turned 16 and we got a telephone and central heat in the same year.

Those days are long gone and, in the years that followed, I found more effective ways to communicate with people at a distance. The old-fashioned telephones worked well enough for most social and business purposes.

You could call home, arrange to meet your friends, schedule appointments, make airline or hotel reservations, and have any kind of conversation about any topic with anyone in the world.

The reception was usually clear enough to give and receive the information you needed and even to pick up the emotional tone and energy level of the person to whom you were speaking.

These simple landlines brought me news of my father’s first stroke, the details of his doctor’s treatment plan and a day-by-day chronicle of his recovery, conveyed simply by the strength of his voice on the phone.

Years later, when my mother needed daily visits from a home health care worker but could not remember to let her in the house, I used the telephone to remind her to open the door.

Now comes the smartphone able to do all of these things and more. Besides the obvious advantages of a device that is both a telephone and a computer, the smartphone gives us a variety of ways to make contact with others.

If you want to convey information but do not want to interrupt the recipient, you can send an email.

If the matter is more urgent but you do not need an immediate reply, the text message is a good choice.

If you want to have a real conversation and have reason to believe the other party is free to talk, you can make a good old-fashioned telephone call. Add FaceTime, and you are suddenly transported to a new dimension.

The other day when my wife and I were visiting her 99-year-old mother in her memory care center, we tried to start a FaceTime conversation with our children who were just sitting down to lunch in a Colorado restaurant.

Although grandma is strong and healthy for her age, her memory is failing. As always, she greeted us by name and recognized us as her daughter and son-in-law, though she also confessed that, when we are not there, she sometimes wonders if she has any children.

Because she lives in the here and now and knows only what is present to her senses, we hoped FaceTime would bring her grandchildren into the picture as well.

As it turned out, the cell phone signal was weak at the facility and, though we could carry on a conversation with our children, we could not raise the images of their faces on the screen. We abandoned the attempt to include grandma and continued our visit. Reflecting on the experience the next day, my wife said we almost connected but not quite. She was talking about the limits of the smartphone but we were both thinking about dementia and the way our connection with her mother is not quite what it used to be.

This was the summer of my first smartphone. It was the summer I learned first-hand how technology has made it easier than ever before to connect with others. It was the summer I learned how our human frailty limits even the most advanced technology.

Alan Bodnar is a psychologist formerly at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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