With the new coronavirus hitting older adults particularly hard, many nursing homes are protecting their residents by keeping visitors away. And seniors living in their own homes are encouraged to limit visits from friends and relatives so as not to spread the disease.
But that definitely doesn’t mean communication should stop, said Erin Yelland, Kansas State University assistant professor.
“We know that older adults are at a very high risk with this virus. Not only are they at higher risk for experiencing severe illness as a result of COVID-19, but they’re also dying at higher rates,” said Yelland, who is a specialist in adult development and aging with K-State Research and Extension.
It’s a struggle because it’s important for seniors to have social contact with family, friends and neighbors, but right now it’s important to increase physical distance from them, making this the best time to take advantage of current technology, Yelland said.
She suggests making phone calls, sending text messages or emails: “Whatever type of technology an older adult is comfortable with, but we can also encourage them to try newer technology such as video chat. Those can be quite easy through Facebook Messenger, Skype, What’sApp, or using a phone’s FaceTime feature.”
Sending photos or videos to older adults who likely are more isolated than usual, is also a way to stay connected.
“I know I love sending and receiving videos and pictures of my younger family members and of course older adults would love receiving those of their kids or grandkids as well,” Yelland said.
The contact doesn’t have to be lengthy, perhaps just checking in to ask how they are, asking what plans they have that day, or sending a quick picture of the grandkids, she said. This kind of contact can reduce the likelihood of anxiety and stress.
“Not only are we staying connected with older adults socially via technology, but we’re also using that as a way of checking in on them. We know that if an older adult lives alone, is socially isolated, they can be at higher risk for all sorts of things, such as depression, anxiety and different illnesses as well,” she added.
When checking in with a senior, it’s a good idea to ask if they need a medication refill or anything else that might warrant communication with their doctor, Yelland said, noting that now more than ever, telehealth is useful.
“I know for a fact that many doctors now are doing more telehealth,” she said, referring to the ability for patients to connect with their health providers through telecommunications. “It’s a really neat opportunity to stay connected with your physician when you can’t get in for an appointment because of physical distancing.”
“We were we unable to put this (telehealth) into place for years, but now all of a sudden we’ve been able to get this done in a couple of weeks. These types of things are a really bright silver lining and if we’re able to keep this going after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, we could see a lot of benefits, and not only for older adults, but for everyone.”
That means internet access in rural communities is more important than ever, not only for seniors to be able to communicate with doctors, caregivers and families, but also for children in order for them to do their schoolwork.
“Really, this is a bright shining call that we need to be addressing the issue of internet access all over our country.”
Circumstances vary, but for older adults who have caregivers that don’t normally live with them, it’s sometimes best for the caregiver to move into the senior’s home or for the senior to move into the caregiver’s home temporarily to reduce the chances of virus exposure from someone coming in and out of the senior’s home.
“We know that caregiving is an incredibly stressful job, but now in this time of COVID-19 and the stress and uncertainty and all of this physical distancing that we’re encouraged to do, it can become even more burdensome,” said Yelland, who through her role as an extension specialist, routinely works with caregivers across Kansas. “If you live out of town, but your sister is normally the one who takes care of mom, be sure that you’re checking in on that sister and see if there’s anything extra that you can do from far away to help reduce the stress and burden on them.”
Yelland said the “sandwich generation” – those adults who are not only taking care of aging parents and maybe even grandparents, but also children – already deal with difficult circumstances, but those difficulties have been heightened by the pandemic.
“Now everyone is home 24-7. We don’t have the sort of reprieve when kiddos go to school or when you go to work and you’re in your own space and you’re able to concentrate on yourself for a little bit. So we’re seeing this intense pressure being put on people,” she said. “It’s wonderful to be able to spend more time with family members, but it can also be stressful.”
K-State Research and Extension offers resources online or through local offices, plus Yelland encourages seniors and their families and caregivers to check the National Institutes on Aging, and its Go4Life campaign, plus the YMCA and other resources.