How to Support Elderly Friends and Family During COVID-19
Jun 09, 2020 Cedars-Sinai Staff
Physical distancing guidelines are meant to protect everyone, especially older adults, from COVID-19. But isolation can also do harm for seniors, who are already vulnerable to chronic loneliness, which can have devastating health effects.
While you're not able to see or touch older friends or family members in person, you should still support them from afar, says Dr. Sonja Rosen, chief of geriatric medicine at Cedars-Sinai.
"A lot of people don't reach out when they're not feeling good because they don't want to trouble family members or doctors, so you might need to do some prodding. Be proactive with follow-up."
Dr. Rosen began seeing more of her patients by phone and video as the COVID-19 pandemic evolved. While each patient is different—some still require caregivers, while others can independently look after themselves—it's still important to stay in touch with older adults to make sure they're safe and coping emotionally with the toll of the pandemic.
Below, Dr. Rosen offers advice on how you can support older adults from afar and encourages healthy people to seek out ways to help older people who need it.
"Even if you don't have family members that need help, look around at your neighbors," she says. "It's incredible the support my patients are getting from the people who live in their apartment buildings or on their streets."
First, ask your loved ones if they have enough food and essential hygiene supplies such as toilet paper and soap. Make sure that they're able to prepare meals and take out the garbage safely if a caregiver isn't available to help.
Don't forget to ask about their health. Try to stay alert to any changes in communication, which could signal that they're not doing well.
"Take note when people stop calling," Dr. Rosen says. "A lot of people don't reach out when they're not feeling good because they don't want to trouble family members or doctors, so you might need to do some prodding. Be proactive with follow-up."
If an older person is sick, encourage them to call their doctor.
"We can see people in the office when we need to," Dr. Rosen says. "We're still here taking care of people—we just want to talk to them over the phone first to make sure we can't manage the issue that way."
Offer gentle encouragement about technology
The stigma that older adults are averse to technology is not necessarily true, Dr. Rosen says. But when your loved one resists modern ways to stay connected, try some gentle encouragement.
"I've had patients say they can't FaceTime because they think it's harder than it is," she says. "So I just explain it, and the next thing you know, we're doing a video call and they love it."
Consider purchasing your loved one a tablet loaded with books, or one that makes it easy to watch movies or TV shows.
"A tablet is a really great gift to help them maintain that social engagement, and it can also help them access their healthcare through email and My CS-Link™," Dr. Rosen says.
Remember the basics
Some older adults need caregivers to continue cooking, cleaning and caring for them. Dr. Rosen says it is always acceptable for older people to ask that caregivers wear masks and gloves and wash their hands often.
"As long as you're being safe and following precautions, everyone has to do what works for them and what is necessary," she says.
Ultimately, Dr. Rosen says, remember that physical distancing is the best way to slow the spread of infection.
"It's hard when kids are asking, 'When can we hug grandma again?'" she says. "The system is working right now, but we're still not sure who is a carrier and we don't want to mix germs."