As painful as it is to not be able to visit your loved one at a nursing home or assisted living facility, the situation on the inside may be even more troubling. While most of us are physically distancing from others, wearing masks in public, washing hands frequently, and relying on video chatting for work or visiting with friends and family, elderly people who reside in a facility stay in their rooms for the majority of the day, perhaps only seeing a caregiver to help at mealtimes or to attend to hygiene. The staff may be limited and struggling to take care of each resident’s basic needs, which does not leave much time for extra attention or longer social interactions.
Normally, you could visit frequently, take your loved one out for a meal or a movie, or join in activities offered at the facility, but none of these options is available right now. These unprecedented times challenge all of us to find creative, patient, and kind solutions to prevent social isolation and seniors who are at risk for depression or failing health because of their loneliness and lack of sensory stimulation.
Why It Matters
According to both statistics from the US Census Bureau and research conducted at University of California-San Francisco, social isolation and seniors is not a new phenomenon. Over 28% of people 65 and older live alone, and that number increases with age, especially for women, 50% of whom over 75 live by themselves. Almost half of all seniors report being lonely on a regular basis, and again, these numbers do not reflect what is going on now with COVID-19.
As difficult as physical distancing is for you and your friends or family, imagine what it feels like to the elderly, who may already be limited socially because of memory or health problems, a loss of their support network, a fear of falling or driving, or even visual or hearing loss. We are asking a lot of our older generation at a time when they may not have much left to give.
Keep in mind that seniors, especially those who are frail or immunocompromised, are more vulnerable to this pandemic, and while we may be looking forward to stay-at-home orders relaxing, the same freedom of movement may not be possible for our loved ones. That’s why we need to find creative solutions to help them during this unprecedented situation.
You Can Do It
What seniors can retain is their sense of hope, and it is up to health care providers, care managers, family members, and caregivers to help them stay strong. Come up with alternatives to your usual ways of connecting to stay in touch and enrich the lives of your loved one. Here are a few suggestions to get your wheels turning:
• Have a regular time daily or weekly to call your loved one and talk about things other than the pandemic. Some seniors are more technologically advanced than others, so if possible, make that call a video chat for a face-to-face conversation. If not, stick with the regular old phone, but do it often and stick with the same time to make it part of the routine.
• If you used to stop by with treats, such as books on tape, favorite snacks, or fresh flowers from your garden, you can have these items delivered from a local business or online website. Check with your senior about any supplies they may need and have those provided as well. With the assortment of shopping and delivery services taking care of most of these needs for us, you might as well have them make a trip for your loved one.
• Find activities that your senior may enjoy in their rooms. Coloring books, crossword puzzles, and simple crafts can be ways to pass the time. You can even order a custom jigsaw puzzle with a favorite family photo on it, and the number of pieces can be as few as 15 for those seniors who may have motor or cognitive limitations.
• Enlist a young person to help. With college students and older teens learning from home and facing a lot of down time, they can add volunteering into their day to help elderly people who cannot get out and run their own errands. Maybe they can drop off a tablet with a video chatting app loaded on it to make it easier to connect. From there, those same young adults can read books, watch movies, or just listen to stories of the past to interact with seniors on a personal level. Having a volunteer read to a sight-impaired senior who may miss reading can be an even more valuable connection that can continue long after quarantine ends.
• Contact the facility administrators to ask about they are doing to counteract the social isolation and seniors that is surely taking place. They may have resources or suggestions to help you, but if you do not ask about it, you may not know. Find the balance between advocating for your loved one and being a nuisance; after all, this situation is challenging for all the residents and staff, not just your loved one. Show your appreciation for any extra effort with a baked treat, gift card, or other small token of thanks.
• Advocating on your own may be frustrating, especially with the constantly changing quarantine recommendations for assisted living facilities. Working with a care manager to navigate the red tape and roadblocks can take some of the stress off you and your isolated loved one. Consider adding a care manager to your team for another contact person with expertise and an extensive community network to monitor your senior’s health and quality of life while you are not able to do so in person.
In a matter of weeks, we may see some of these distancing recommendations relax, but you should still exercise caution to keep your senior and yourself healthy. Try to stay positive and encouraging for your loved one as well; after all, in this confusing time, he or she may look to you for guidance and understanding.
Hang in there, and good luck!