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How to Help Seniors Feel Less Isolated

Experts offer creative tips to keep loneliness at bay

By Anna Holtby

March 26, 2020 •

The COVID-19 pandemic means a new reality for Canadians, particularly those over 60, who are most at risk.

Healthy seniors may protect themselves from the virus through social distancing, but many in care homes are facing major changes to routines and restrictions on visitors. This is especially hard on people with dementia or Alzheimer's, who might not understand the new rules. Seniors at home may also feel more isolated, with family living far away or unable to visit.

While these measures are essential to protect seniors, they create the risk of another problem - loneliness. Research suggests loneliness negatively affects seniors' mental and physical health, says Roger Wong, '90 BMedSc, '92 MD, a geriatrics doctor and advocate for better seniors care.

"The question becomes, 'How do we look at social distancing to protect seniors physically, but still engage them socially?'" says Wong, who is also an executive associate dean and a clinical professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of British Columbia.

Caring for senior relatives and friends begins with following all recommendations from health officials in your area (Albertans can find information here), as well as recommendations from care homes, Wong says. However, it's equally important to take steps to keep them from feeling isolated. Here are a few creative solutions.

Tip 1: Stay in touch

While this may seem obvious, it's not always easy, as some seniors aren't comfortable with the technology that could keep them connected. It may be tempting to give the octogenarian in your life an iPad, but now's not the time to introduce new devices, says Wendy Duggleby, '90 MN, former research chair in aging and quality of life at the University of Alberta.

Instead, Duggleby suggests an old-fashioned phone call. If you're concerned about keeping a senior engaged on the phone, she recommends going into the conversation with a specific shared memory so you can both reminisce. It's also important to end the talk with a reminder that you'll call again soon.

Even phone calls won't work for all seniors, particularly those who are hard of hearing. In that case, Duggleby suggests writing letters. You can even get the grandkids involved by asking them to make a card.

Duggleby also recommends mailing seniors old photos of themselves with family and friends, labelled with names and dates on the back. "One thing we know from research is even people that have severe forms of dementia will respond to pictures," she says.

Wong says not to write off technology for seniors who are comfortable on a smartphone or computer. Many are on Facebook, and younger family members can resurrect their accounts to stay in touch.

Tip 2: Sync up

Beyond conversations and letters, both Wong and Duggleby suggest families find ways to virtually synchronize activities with seniors.

As seniors in care homes or retirement communities face changes to their social routines, Wong recommends finding ways to virtually recreate them. For example, many may be used to eating meals with others and are now having them alone. For those with a device, Wong suggests eating dinner together over video call.

After dinner, families can try linking up Netflix and watching a movie virtually with the grandkids. "Adhere to the same routine as much as possible - what you're changing is just the medium."

Again, for those unused to technology or in cognitive decline, Duggleby suggests reading to a senior over the phone or asking a grandparent to read or tell a bedtime story to kids. She also recommends putting the phone on speaker and having musical family members put on a personal concert.

Many seniors also risk becoming sedentary during this pandemic. Duggleby suggests an audio workout, where a family member and the senior complete the same basic exercises over the phone, taking care not to exceed the safety and capability of the senior.

Tip 3: Support care-home staff

As staff in retirement or nursing homes face additional protocols during the pandemic, Duggleby suggests finding small ways to say thanks. For example, if you're writing a letter to your senior in care, you could also mail a thank-you card to staff.

And while you may be worried about not being able to visit a family member in long-term care, be patient with busy employees. Wong suggests finding an appropriate time to speak with staff so they can support your efforts to stay in touch.

Tip 4: Suggest helping others

Finally, Duggleby recommends reminding seniors that they can also take small, safe steps to support others though this period.

"In times of crisis, all of us need something constructive to do. Seniors, like anybody else, like to help people … So encourage them to call their neighbours and check on them. They can reach out to others."

Whatever tips you try, it's important to set up patterns of connecting as soon as you can. "It is critical to human beings to have social interaction," says Duggleby. "This really underscores the importance of doing something now."

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