Amy Goyer hears from a lot of seniors in her role as AARP’s family and caregiving expert. Lately, they’ve talked about feeling exhausted by the prospect of living with coronavirus restrictions.
“The thought of having to do this for months and months is completely overwhelming,” says Goyer.
Though numerous states have begun relaxing their shelter-in-place policies, seniors remain worried about contracting COVID-19. They’re are at much higher risk for serious complications or fatal outcomes. Nursing homes have been disproportionately affected, and eight out of 10 deaths reported in the U.S. have occurred among those who are 65 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That figure alone is enough to convince many seniors to stay indoors or limit their movement until there’s an effective treatment or vaccine, which may be years away. Until seniors feel comfortable regularly venturing into the world, they’ll continue to need support and assistance.
Goyer offered the following tips for helping any seniors in your life:
1. Stay involved.
You may have reached out at the beginning of the pandemic, but the urgency of offering help and staying connected could’ve waned in recent weeks. Either way, be sure to keep checking in regularly via phone, text, or video. Goyer says to reassure older loved ones that you’re in this together. They may just need to hear another person’s voice, particularly if they’re alone at home or in a care facility and don’t have the structure of visiting with coworkers via video conference or seeing neighbors during social distancing walks or outings.
If you’re looking for creative ways to be present, Goyer recommends a shared experience like taking an online class, virtually touring a museum, or simultaneously watching the same movie while talking on the phone together.
StoryCorps, the nonprofit organization that helps people record interviews with each other, recently launched a new platform called StoryCorps Connect that allows participants to record conversations held via video conferencing. Goyer says that learning about your loved one — and making them the center of attention right now — through such an interview can be gratifying for everyone.
Such activities are intellectually stimulating, which Goyer says is critical to helping seniors maintain their cognitive thinking skills and feel fulfilled. Doing these kinds of things can also deepen your bond and serve as a source of inspiration and hopefulness during a difficult time.
“The key thing about isolation is not having connections and shared experiences,” says Goyer. Activities that bridge the loneliness can fight that.
2. Help them with technology.
While not all seniors struggle to use technology, Goyer recommends ensuring that the person you’re concerned about can get online if they desire and is able to use technology like video conferencing software. This might mean remotely helping them set up Zoom or Facebook Portal on a device, facilitating a group phone call with their friends, shipping them a tablet, or buying them a phone like the Jitterbug, which was designed with seniors in mind.
Don’t hesitate to ask how you can make it easier for them to stay digitally connected to their friends and the outside world.
3. Arrange to get their essentials delivered.
Many seniors figured out how to get groceries and other essentials at the beginning of the pandemic, and some may have received support from neighbors or younger friends. But Goyer says that seniors she’s spoken to are hesitant to continue asking for assistance, even if they still need it. In the meantime, offers to run errands and deliver groceries may dwindle as restrictions relax.
If you haven’t done so already, check in with your loved one about starting an inventory list for their grocery needs. If possible, arrange to have their groceries delivered on certain days, based on when they’re due to run out of kitchen staples. Even sending or delivering a prepared meal once a week is a gesture that can make them feel loved.
Also be sure to ask about supplies they might need from hardware or drug stores, including prescription medicine. Retailers like Amazon, Target, and Costco will ship items like batteries, light bulbs, and gardening supplies, and seniors may be able to receive prescriptions through the mail.
If your loved one is on a fixed income and is anxious about affording groceries and supplies, make sure they’ve taken advantage of any state or federal aid programs for which they’re eligible, including food stamps, cash assistance, and Veterans benefits. Goyer recommends contacting the local area agency on aging, which is a public or private nonprofit that addresses the needs of older residents, to learn more about benefits and resources. The government’s Eldercare Locator can help you find those agencies by zip code.
4. Encourage them to stick with a routine.
Trying to survive a global pandemic is not how any senior imagined spending their “golden” years. Retirees who had active social and family lives may feel adrift without their daily routines, and those on the cusp of retirement may feel lost while trying to do their jobs virtually. Most of them are likely worried not only about their physical health, but also about their financial future. Losses in the stock market, which generates money for retirement and pension plans, have dramatically changed what’s possible for some seniors.
This upheaval — and the anxiety that comes with it — means routines are even more important, says Goyer. Routines create normalcy and order, which is easy to lose when the news always seems bad. They also give people a sense of control, which is particularly important for high-risk individuals who might otherwise feel helpless.
Goyer recommends gently encouraging your loved one to adopt or keep with their daily routine — and finding ways to support those habits — instead of lecturing them.
5. Monitor their physical and mental health.
Many seniors have been forced to stop their regular exercise routine because it involved going to a gym, playing a sport with others (think tennis or pickle ball), or walking on crowded streets, trails, or paths.
It’s important to ask a senior if they’ve been able to maintain some form of physical activity or exercise. That could be gardening, video workouts, or basic strength training at home. Goyer suggests sending your senior items and resources like plants for gardening, yoga videos, or even a treadmill if that’s safe and within your budget.
While weights and exercise equipment have been in short supply, there are simple substitutes, like using a can of beans or a jug of laundry detergent, that can help with maintaining strength and balance. The YMCA is offering free online classes, including a series of videos of active older adults. Silver Sneakers, a free program for those 65 and older on certain Medicare plans, has more than 200 workout videos.
It’s also important to monitor your senior’s mental health. Goyer says to watch for clues in their affect and appearance. If they seem down and they’re wearing the same pair of pajamas day after day, try asking how they feel, validating those emotions, and offering to help.
The Pandemic Crisis Services Coalition recently launched a free database of crisis services searchable by state, contact method, support type, topics, and categories, so that people can easily find local mental health support. If your loved one doesn’t already have a counselor or therapist but is nervous about seeing someone in person, there are several therapy apps and online platforms that offer a range of text, phone, and video services. You can also share AARP’s own list of help lines.
If your loved one is feeling lonely but isn’t interested in therapy or a helpline, suggest they try AARP’s Friendly Voices program, through which they can request a trained volunteer to call periodically and chat with them.
6. Help support their sense of purpose.
Research shows that having a sense of purpose increases resilience. Volunteering is one way to cultivate that feeling, particularly if your loved one typically volunteers but can’t do so now, or if they cannot attend their regular religious services.
AARP’s Community Connections platform helps users find local mutual aid groups where they can work alongside other informal volunteers to assist people in their community. AARP’s separate Create the Good platform offers volunteer opportunities that can be done remotely. Goyer says that AARP state offices can also refer callers to volunteer activities.
Those supporting a senior through the pandemic may not be able to do everything on this list, but focusing on just a few of these actions can make a big difference in your loved one’s life.