Caring for elderly during times of social distancing and isolation

Many of us are dealing with something we may never have imagined: being told we can’t visit the elder we love. It was today when Oregon’s Governor Kate Brown added adult group homes to the list of nursing and other senior living centers no longer allowed to have visitors. From the scientific and health protection side: I understand. From the emotional side? I’m devastated.

We know how important social interaction is to all people for enhancing well-being. Increased risk factors for isolation within our elderly – lack of vision, memory, hearing, loss of longtime friends and partners – makes loneliness a very real issue, even without COVID-19. And while I am mourning the loss of regular contact with my mom, I know that people throughout the world are experiencing, some for the first time, this social isolation.

I decided it might make me feel better, to not only write about it, but to brainstorm and collate ideas that might bring some level of social interaction to folks who may now be isolated: either by living alone, or, like my mom, living in a home now restricted from visitors. Many seniors, like my mom, also lack good vision, hearing, and have challenges related to memory, adding even more challenges when interacting virtually.

That all being true, here’s my first crack at thinking about some activities and opportunities to support our elderly.

  • Find and disinfect an iPad, write down simple instructions for receiving a FaceTime or Skype call. (If you have one not being used much, find a friend or center that might want to borrow it.) Some elders may be able to operate this on their own. Others, like our mom who has low vision (although she can see enough on FaceTime to make it very meaningful) will require the help of staff. With staff demands being very high, this may be difficult to support in some places. If you’re able to connect with your loved one, add fun props to your conversation: pets, show off a garden or flower, remind them of a piece of art, heirloom or gift they gave you that you love.
  • A photo that recently went viral on Facebook earlier this week illustrates a man outside the window of his father’s window, both on the phone. If you are fortunate enough to be able to sit outside your loved one’s window, and they can hear well enough by phone, give them a call! Put your feet up, wave. Bring your coffee and stay awhile.
  • Or as another story that came out today in the Washington Post, get some budding musicians together and perform outdoors – perhaps windows can be left open! My brother doesn’t know this yet, but I’m planning on getting together with him outside the window where Mom lives, and creating an impromptu (albeit weird), choreographed-on-the-fly dance this weekend for Mom and her residents. Even though she is low vision, I figure we can safely get right up to the window. Maybe kids in your community can show off their tutus and dancing. (Oh, good idea – my brother would be cute in a tutu.)
  • Place an audio call either on the phone or tablet, and see if it can be put on speaker, or hooked up to a speaker if needed. Read a short story or tell a silly tale. I know that during this time of life, humor and fun is what my mom needs most.
  • If you have a loved one with low vision, sign them up for your state’s Talking Books Program. (Registration usually requires a health care provider to assert low vision or blind status). This amazing federally funded program sends a player unique to the provided audiobooks, followed by books in the mail (no postage required). You can request books by genre and specific title. Some seniors may appreciate access to newspapers and magazines which are also available, some by audio through the telephone. Learn more: Talking Books in Oregon.
  • If you have children or have friends with children, encourage a letter writing campaign to be sent to residents of a neighboring home or senior living center.
  • Some senior living centers and group homes have the ability to share videos and messages with their residents, through websites, Facebook, or email with families. Keep in mind staff are commonly stretched, even before COVID-19. However, emailing owners or staff may provide ideas on how these might be shared. I know my Mom would love to watch a family narrating a walk in the neighborhood (especially if small children are included), pointing out signs of spring, or their dog on a walk, or other news and stories.
  • Imagining other ideas for communities to support older neighbors? Check out this post from Ethos.

Okay, that’s all I’ve got for now. What about you? I’d love to add more ideas to this list – feel free to do so in the comments below. Sending love and permission to take care of yourself and exude kindness to others.

Dede Montgomery is the author of three published books, including a memoir, My Music Man, written after the death of her dad.

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