Just what we need: Another reason to fear and loathe COVID-19.
If your loved ones are old, ill and confined to an assisted living or senior care home, you already know they are especially vulnerable to the killer virus, as the devastating death statistics in nursing homes attest.
But you might not realize the efforts to protect them by isolating them has potentially dangerous consequences, too.
This became alarmingly obvious to Mary Ann Sternberg after her longtime partner, Ron, a retired psychologist who has Parkinson’s disease, was confined to the grounds along with the rest of the residents of his high-quality assisted living community in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, after they all went into lockdown in March.
The residents couldn’t go out and their relatives couldn’t go in. They couldn’t interact with their friends in the community. They ate alone in their rooms. All activities were cancelled – no more poker or bingo games. No more visiting performers from the university music school, no more speaker lectures in the community room, no more book-club meetings or even religious services.
Soon, Sternberg, a longtime freelance writer and author of four books on Louisiana history and culture, noticed a difference in Ron, as she described in an anguished, angry column she wrote on Next Avenue, an online magazine of news for people over 50 based in the Twin Cities and associated with PBS.
“I’ve noticed during our daily FaceTime visits, after Ron’s seven weeks in lockdown, in physical isolation with a lack of social and intellectual stimulation, he has suffered a noticeable mental decline,” she wrote. “Sometimes, he seems like the old Ron, but at other times, he is unable to process things — and it’s not just from the Parkinson’s.”
AARP, the leading advocacy organization for people over age 50, has studied this issue of social isolation (it has a website devoted to it) and found that more than 8 million adults age 50 and older are affected by it.
“We know about the dangers and the most striking comparison is that it can be the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day in terms of your health,” says Amy Goyer, AARP’S family and care-giving expert. “I’ve worked in this field 35 years, we know it’s bad for older adults, and we’ve learned more about how bad it is: It affects your mental health and your physical health.”
Sternberg is exasperated that so many care homes for seniors and others failed to anticipate the need to come up with ways to keep residents safe, without cutting them off from everything.
“They’re doing it for health-care safety but they’re not thinking of the whole person,” Sternberg says.
Individual facilities are trying to innovate and publications such as Next Avenue are trying to highlight their efforts.
Some care homes have organized small ways to hold socially distanced small-group activities, such as hallway or doorway bingo (residents sit in their doorway with a tray table and staff calls bingo in the hallway or through the overhead pager system), or by sending occasional ice cream sundae carts through the community as a treat.
Here are some ideas from Goyer and Sternberg for keeping your loved ones mentally engaged while in isolation.
Help seniors get more tech savvy
If the care facility hasn’t already done so, get your granny an iPad or some kind of tablet and make sure she knows how to use it. This may not be easy, but it’s doable.
“You’re talking about one of the last generations that isn’t totally comfortable with digital (devices),” says Sternberg. “But one way to extend their lives beyond campus or their apartment is to have online access to hear lectures, hear a concert or attend a Zoom webinar.”
Both Sternberg and Goyer say the care staff is crucial to helping seniors learn to use devices. Sternberg says facilities should assign someone on staff to be the tech person who can provide hands-on instruction, with masks, of course.
“We are seeing a big difference (in fighting isolation) in those care homes that bought a bunch of iPads and helped residents to use them to communicate with family and friends,” Goyer says. “Those residents who are already tech savvy – they know how to text or to use Facetime – are way ahead of the curve because they can more easily fall back on that. And care givers are working to get more up to speed on that, too.”
Don’t forget to preload the device for your loved one with apps they might enjoy, such as games, the Kindle book app or a lecture portal.
Send loved ones on online adventures
Once they get comfortable with devices, show your loved ones how they can use it to take classes, listen to lectures and concerts, read books, watch videos, exercise and even take tours from their rooms.
Goyer knows of a family that gave their patriarch in a care facility a virtual tour of an Irish village for a Father’s Day present, which provided him with a delightful return to the old sod, courtesy of a village resident.
“The kids in the family joined from all over country and they experienced it together as a family – that’s what relationships are about, shared experiences,” says Goyer. “The one positive outcome of (the pandemic) is that everyone can be connected wherever you are and they’re realizing it’s fun and better than not being together at all.”
Do more with in-house TV channels
“Everybody has a TV in their rooms, so they should have an in-house channel that schedules programs every day, including exercise programs and classes,” says Sternberg.
Meanwhile, you can give your loved one a Netflix account (or share your own password) or a similar streaming service so they can watch movies and other streaming content.
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Set up a friendly phone call
Volunteers around the country are forming mutual aid groups and reaching out to seniors in care homes, among others. One of the organizers is AARP’s Community Connections program. You can arrange to have a volunteer call your loved one to add to the number of human interactions she has in a week.
“It’s taken off because it gives volunteers a purpose and makes this wonderful connection with people,” Goyer says. “Even if it’s on the phone, it’s still a connection and a live voice talking to you.”
The program also offers a variety of resources, such as Alcove, a virtual reality app designed to combat social isolation by allowing families to connect by bringing them together inside a virtual world filled with immersive experiences.
Organize a Zoom book club
Send your loved ones books and they can discuss them online via Zoom conferences.
“You can order them audio or digital books from book apps or from local libraries, sign them up for specific book genres or even read to them if they no longer read,” Goyer says. “You can set up a book club with just two people or with a larger group of family or friends.”
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Keep those cards, letters and packages coming via snail mail
“A ‘thinking of you’ card at a time like this is like gold to someone in a senior community,” says Goyer. “Care packages, scrap books, online scrapbooks if they’re savvy – connecting through items like that is something you and they can do together.”
Another way to encourage mental stimulation is to give them a mission – say, writing letters to people in the military, such as Support Our Troops. “It gives them a sense of purpose, and a meaningful interaction,” Goyer says.
Also, play online board and card games with them. And for a non-tech form of stimulation, send jigsaw puzzles appropriate to their skill level.
Help them document their life stories
You’ve always meant to sit down and take down your grandfather’s life story; this is the time to do it via remote technology. “You can talk to them on a device and record it or talk to them via Zoom and record it,” Goyer says.
And speaking of nostalgia, now is a good time to organize scrapbooks and old photos, maybe even digitize them. “It’s not just keeping busy, it’s purposeful and they can see a result and that’s very helpful to people,” Goyer says.
Make sure they have a device and know how to download podcasts to listen to for intellectual stimulation.
Music is crucial to brain health, studies have shown, so suggest music stations, such as public radio’s classical stations, to listen to for relaxation therapy. Show them how to find all genres of music and videos on YouTube, NPR Music or local PBS stations. And at the moment, many musicians offer online concerts via Facebook Live or their websites.
The key, Goyer says, is don’t despair; there are resources to help you and your loved ones and they’re getting better all the time.
“The hopeful thing is that so many neat efforts have cropped up to connect with those who are socially isolated,” she says. “We have boots on the ground that are making a difference, and I think that will continue even after COVID-19 is gone.
“We are seeing that things can be done.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19: 8 tips help elderly stay mentally acute in isolation