SUPPORTING YOUR ELDERLY LOVED ONE DURING COVID-19
Three Approaches to Care
My 100-year-old great aunt has lived in the same apartment in Don Mills for more than 40 years. She tells me about the happiness that the colourful flower basket on her balcony gives her. She cherishes her one piece of dark chocolate every day. My aunt is one of the lucky ones: COVID-19 hasn’t taken those joys away from her.
For many of us, the challenge of helping the older adults in our lives find joy, stimulation, and even brief but sustaining moments of contact in the time of COVID can be difficult. It can be hard to know how best to support and care for your loved one at the same time as you keep them safe. They may be in a care facility or in a retirement home carefully transitioning out of lockdown. They may be continuing to self-isolate in their own homes, or gradually resuming contact with the world. Thankfully, regardless of their circumstances, there are things you can do to support them.
Based on my experience as a student caseworker at the Elder Law Clinic at Queen’s University, Kingston where I gained insight into what can make the difference between a good and a bad day for my clients, and on my research into the issue of supportive care, here are three approaches.
MAINTAIN A SOCIAL SUPPORT NETWORK
Studies have shown that social participation is key to maintaining the mental health of older adults.1 In our pre-COVID world, approximately 50% of people over the age of 80 reported feeling lonely.2 Now that our elderly loved ones are even more isolated, with no weekly lunch outings with friends or family BBQs to look forward to, being attentive to their social needs has become more important than ever.
If the person you are caring for is adept at using technology, options such as video calling are a good way to enjoy “face-to-face” time from a safe distance. However, many older adults are not tech-savvy and the telephone is their only mode of communication. In either event, creating a call schedule with members of your loved one’s family and friend group is an effective way to ensure regular socialization. Designated chat times for each participant in their support network means your loved one will be able to have nearly daily communication with others, and will also ensure no one person has to shoulder this responsibility alone. Aside from the usual pleasantries (there isn’t much “catching up” to do when we’re all home!), you can switch things up by doing a word puzzle together over the phone, or perhaps playing one of their favourite songs for them.
Whatever routine works for you, creating a support network and schedule of reaching out can ensure regular socializing for the older adult in your life, while also allowing you to keep tabs on their mental and physical wellbeing.
ENCOURAGE AN ACTIVE MIND
Between phone calls or visits, your loved ones will need to keep themselves occupied during their time alone, and sitting inside during isolation has gotten very dull very quickly for pretty much everyone, not just the elderly. Numerous studies have suggested that cognitive stimulation can help with long-term brain health of older adults, and so you should consider incorporating brain-stimulating activities into your loved one’s daily routine.3 The next time you drop off a (sanitized) care package, consider including a new book or magazine, some crosswords from the newspaper, a small canvas and some paints, or a puzzle.
Get creative – form a mini book club by reading the same novel and discussing the most recently read chapters with them on your phone or Skype calls. If they are tech savvy, send them a link to a website that allows them to play Solitaire or solo chess. When you are speaking on the phone, engage in meaningful conversation.
Brain health aside, activities that switch up a daily routine can help keep your loved one busy and engaged while learning something new – all good things.
KEEP YOURSELF HEALTHY FIRST
Much like putting on your own oxygen mask before helping another on an airplane, as care facilities are starting to open up for scheduled visits and as you choose to visit your loved one in their own homes more often, it is crucial that you keep yourself safe by abiding by the current rules in your jurisdiction surrounding social distancing, wearing masks, and sanitizing. The older adults in your life may be socially supported with an active mind, but if you visit them while carrying COVID-19 you put them, and others in their facility, at terrible risk. As testing becomes more available, some jurisdictions and some individual facilities may require visitors to get a COVID-19 test before allowing entry. However, even if this is not a requirement before you visit your loved one, scheduling testing every two weeks ensures your efforts in staying safe are paying off, and are therefore keeping those around you safe, too.
To find a testing centre near you, click here.
IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS
While caring for an elderly loved one can be an added stressor during an already stressful time, remember that little things - for my great aunt, a piece of chocolate and a basket of flowers - can go a long way. Whether you are already doing most of the above, or have come away from this blog post with new ideas for supporting your loved ones, remember to reach out for help when overwhelmed and to be kind to yourself during these times. Keeping our senior population feeling safe and loved is high priority as we work to get through the pandemic together – we all must do our part.
1MacCourt, P. (2008). Promoting Seniors’ Well-Being: A Seniors’ Mental Health Policy Lens Toolkit.
2The National Seniors Council of Canada. (2014). Report on the Social Isolation of Seniors
3 Beth Azar. (2002). Use it or lose it?: More research suggests that mental activity may stave off the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease: