Baking cookies with grandma, chatting on the porch of an older neighbor, playing cards at the local senior center…unfortunately, many of these familiar ways we enjoy connecting with older adults are not possible right now due to COVID-19. Keeping our communities safe during the virus outbreak has changed how we do so many things—including socialize. With the temporary closure of elderly care services including adult day care centers and senior care companion programs, research shows that older adults are more at risk of being socially isolated than ever before.
Whether you are an in-home caregiver, a nearby friend, a relative living far from your loved ones, or fit into several of these roles, there are plenty of ways you can show the elderly that they are not alone in this season of separation. Below, we’ll walk through six ideas shared by Senior Day Services’ social worker Amanda Nole, MSW to ensure the seniors in our communities stay connected through this time of unprecedented social distancing.
If you’re a full-time or part-time caregiver, your circumstances have likely changed even if your physical distance has not. The temporary absence of adult day programs (including Senior Day Services’) and reduction of support available from home health care providers has likely resulted in a new layer of additional responsibilities, and you may face challenges in connecting your loved ones in a time where they have lost contact with their regular communities. To keep your older loved ones connected with you and others in the home, Amanda recommends engaging them both physically and mentally.
#1. Establish routines to stay physically active.
Along with helping to maintain good physical health, research shows that exercise can significantly decrease loneliness and social isolation in older adults. Unfortunately, current restrictions on elder day care facilities and home health support severely limit opportunities to join workout classes and receive in-person physical therapy. The motivation to continue routines and physical activity at home has decreased for all ages. To support elderly loved ones in staying fit, Amanda recommends that full-time caregivers turn to YouTube and other streaming services to find new routines, like these simple chair exercises for older adults. Additionally, the warm summer weather may bring more opportunities to encourage fitness while enjoying some fresh air and a change of scenery. Taking a walk around the neighborhood can help both you and your loved ones keep active while also providing the perfect chance to socialize. If you’re feeling adventurous (and tech-savvy), there are also several workout apps tailored for senior citizens, many of which have features to track and share progress with friends.
#2. Open an honest dialogue about mental health.
Just as important as maintaining good physical health is checking in on seniors’ mental well-being. Amanda warns that seniors are at higher risk for anxiety and depression during times of isolation, a point echoed by the National Institute on Aging. In the home, one of the most important things caregivers can do to help is to establish an environment in which you and your loved ones can speak candidly about your emotional health. Listen to your older loved ones’ fears and frustrations about COVID-19 and share your own thoughts as well. You can also take advantage of a variety of local and national resources and support groups specifically geared toward seniors and their loved ones. Amanda recommends the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which has a national helpline as well as specific senior health care resources, as well as the Alzheimer’s Association, which offers information for seniors living with Alzheimer’s as well as more general elder care support.
Keeping seniors physically and mentally engaged not only has long-term health benefits, but it will also provide opportunities for them to connect more fully with yourself (in-person) and others (virtually). But Amanda has one additional message for in-home caregivers: don’t feel guilty when you need a break. Spending a few hours each day focused on you—whether that means talking to someone else in the home, joining a virtual support group, or even doing a meditation—is essential to help you re-center and continue to be the best caregiver you can be.
If you have elderly neighbors down the street or live just a short drive from your parents or grandparents, it may be challenging to know how to connect with them while restrictions are still in place. Amanda recommends several ways to show up for seniors physically while also keeping their health and wellness your top priority.
#3. Check in (or drive by) often.
Although technology enables many families and friends to stay connected daily, checking in on older adults face-to-face can be just as important, especially for those who are not tech-savvy or who are living alone. Still, loved ones’ health and safety should come first, and even as stay-at-home restrictions begin to lift it is important to follow all CDC guidelines, including washing hands and wearing masks. AARP recommends additional safety guidelines for protecting older family members from Coronavirus while visiting, including keeping the trip short, staying outside, and considering your own likelihood of carrying the virus before planning a visit. You can also access up-to-date resources for safety while visiting older adults at the Pennsylvania Department of Health website.
#4. Run errands around town.
While some local supermarkets have blocked out specific hours for senior shopping, many older adults are still understandably nervous about venturing out. One way to keep your loved ones connected is to be their hands and feet in the community, offering your services to fetch groceries, go to the bank, or run other errands on a weekly or monthly basis. Establish a set routine or adapt a system to signal when a trip to town is needed, and be sure to follow all CDC recommendations for sanitizing groceries and other essential items. Along with providing for your loved ones and friends, Amanda shares that there are many opportunities to support less-fortunate seniors in your area. In response to COVID-19’s economic impact, local organizations and food banks in Northeastern PA have partnered to provide meals and other resources to those experiencing financial hardship. Volunteering with such organizations—including ones like Meals on Wheels which focus on elderly meal preparation—is another way to encourage and support isolated seniors in your community.
Whether you are ten, fifty or a thousand miles away from your elderly friends and relatives, the distance may seem impossible to bridge while stay-at-home orders are in place or while concerns about spreading the virus to vulnerable elderly continue be top-of-mind. Amanda recommends some practical actions you can take from any distance to keep in touch with older adults, both using technology tools and good old-fashioned pen and paper.
#5. Take advantage of technology.
If your loved ones aren’t yet tech-savvy, this summer may be a great time to help them get started. Research from AARP shows that using technology leads seniors to enjoy increased connectivity with family and friends and even greater quality of life. Fortunately, there are plenty of free, accessible resources which can help the older adults in your life stay connected using virtual platforms. Amanda recommends investing the time in teaching older adults how to use a video-chat app like Skype or Facetime. Both apps have a relatively simple interface and can be used with groups, so they can easily be used by large families. If your own technical skill falls short, the Philadelphia non-profit Generations Online has also provided a free guide to help the elderly use Skype, Facetime, Zoom, as well as texting and email apps. In addition, there are also a variety of free courses available to help older adults learn basic, intermediate and advanced computer skills. If you’re looking to invest in a user-friendly tablet or device created specifically for seniors, there are several options with varying price points.
#6. Write a letter, note or card.
If you and your loved ones don’t wish to use technology to connect, letter-writing is an easy and timeless alternative. Letter-writing also provides a great outlet through which to communicate with other seniors in your community who may feel lonelier than ever during this time of separation due to a loss of adult day care and in-home support services. To connect you with older adults who would appreciate an encouraging note, Senior Day Services has started a Spread Kindness Initiative. Volunteers are encouraged to send cards, letters and drawing to our clients currently unable to participate in socialization programs due to Coronavirus closures.
Letters can be mailed to: Senior Day Services, C/O Amanda, 1200 Saginaw Street, Scranton, PA 18505. Our team members will receive the letters and ensure they are delivered to seniors in Northeastern Pennsylvania who are currently living alone.
Until we can return to our grandparents’ homes, neighbors’ porches, and local senior centers, it’s important to find creative ways to stay connected with the older family members, friends, neighbors, and members of our community. In this time of isolation, Senior Day Services has remained committed to enriching the lives of older adults and their families. Providing resources and support to keep your loved ones safe, healthy, and connected is just one of the ways we are living this mission until it is safe to gather together again.