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Keep Your Older Parents Safe and Connected During the Quarantine

Addressing social isolation, loneliness, and loss.

Many of us are separated from our older parents while sheltering at home or locked down. Whether they are in assisted care facilities, retirement villages, or just living independently far away, social isolation can be particularly challenging for older people. Several friends and colleagues who are navigating this territory helped me compile these suggestions. Whether they apply to you will depend on what resources you and your parents have and how technologically savvy they are, but if all else fails, there’s always the phone.

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Source: Andrea Piacqadio / Pexels

Social isolation is particularly tough for older people. Some people in group homes are unable to leave their rooms and go into common areas, some are hunkered down in their homes unable to leave, many do not have family who can try some of the ideas below and are struggling to navigate COVID-19 alone. Some are losing loved ones and friends to the virus.

If your parents have a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone, help them download Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, or whatever platform you use. Spend time getting them connected and teaching them how to use the features. I made some step-by-step “how-to” videos for my mom to watch so she could watch and pause as she walked through the steps of getting connected. It took a few minutes but gave her a permanent reminder of the steps to take. Then she taught her friends.

Taking COVID-19 seriously. I am concerned by older people who are not taking the virus seriously—not wearing masks, still going into grocery stores unprotected, not physically distancing. Even with the infection and death toll in their demographic mounting, these behaviors persist. Ambiguous communication from the authorities has left room for interpretation.

I tried a number of approaches to get my parents and their friends to take this pandemic seriously. First, I reminded them of what it was like when polio swept through their towns in their youth. This struck a chord as it was a shared experience of a contagious illness with devastating consequences. Second, a video by Dr. Duc C. Vuong called “How COVID-19 Kills, I'm a Surgeon, and Why We Can't Save You” seemed to hit home. There’s some swearing, but it’s down to earth, and visual, using a sponge to show how your lungs can’t work when they are filled with liquid. No nonsense, no sugar coating, and the message: COVID-19 can kill so protect yourself. He clarifies, “You guys need to start taking this much much more seriously." He emphasizes this is a horrific scenario and we’re in it for the long haul.

Filtering the news. Far too much misinformation is targeted toward the older population. Email chains are the worst offenders, and the source is probably a distant troll farm. My daughter introduced my parents to Snopes, which became their “go-to” site for fact-checking. It is challenging to distill the truth in a world powered by disinformation, but when it is a matter of life and death, it is critical to keep trying.

Staying connected and connecting their friends. Eight women in my parents’ neighborhood are widowed. Pre-COVID they supported each other by sharing meals and books, knitting together, picking things up at the grocery store for each other, taking walks, and just keeping their eyes out for each other’s well-being. They were also a very touchy and huggy bunch. Now, in addition to being in various stages of grieving, they have also lost their personal contact. You can help your parents set up a virtual knitting circle, a virtual card game, a virtual choir, or they can watch a religious service together on Zoom. Be creative in finding ways to keep your older friends connected with each other while isolated.

Online food shopping together. For many older parents, a trip to the grocery store is more than just shopping, it’s a social event. Preventing your parents from going shopping is taking away not only their freedom to browse and choose their food, but also conversation with friends, the woman at the bakery, and the man in the produce section. You can share screens and co-shop with your parents. Helping them navigate different stores, different departments, searching for buried food treasure can be a fun activity that helps pass time and ensures they have adequate supplies and food. Navigating Instacart might be easy for you, but it can pose quite a challenge for those who are less tech-savvy.

Sharing meals while apart. Mealtime alone is very difficult for older people—especially if they are living alone. Just getting the energy to cook for one is a known contributor to undernutrition and weight loss in older people. Planning a meal together and then firing up Zoom or FaceTime during dinner can allow you to share family meals. This increases connectedness during a difficult time of day and also allows you to keep an eye on what they are eating.

Co-watching shows. It is good to have something else to talk about other than the bad news, how many new cases COVID-19 there are, and who is ill or dying. Find a show you can co-watch, even asynchronously that you can talk about it when you connect. My Mom and I have been co-watching an Aussie soap, and it always gives us something juicy to talk or text about along with a little escapism. Even if it just takes a half-hour a day (I watch while I am exercising), it creates a positive connection.

Helping with virtual childcare. You can enlist the grandparents’ help in keeping the children occupied and connected even from afar. You can’t always expect an unstructured conversation to work across the generations, but organizing it around a task like reading a book together (either grandparents reading to the kids or vice versa) while screen sharing can give you a precious few minutes off and foster the connection across the generations.

Surprise them with a delivery. You might have mastered the art of scoping out toilet paper on Amazon, but it can be much harder for parents who are less digital. If they are running low on toilet paper or other essential supplies, spend some time scouring the internet to find what they need, and have it delivered to their house. Walk them through safe package receiving practices, but you will make their day.

Connecting with old friends and relatives—the value of an old fashioned phone call. You can be sure if your parents are alone, so are their friends. Maybe they have retired far from their hometown and lost touch with friends and relatives they used to be close with. Now is a great time to try to track people down and re-connect. Tracking down old classmates on Facebook and other sources is a fun way to spend time and then reaching out can lead to some interesting surprises. Technology might not even be necessary, many are just happy to have a nice long talk about the olden days on the phone.

This Tim Urban graphic, The Tail End, is a stark reminder of how little time we have left to spend with our parents and COVID-19 has threatened that even further. All generations are worried, although our fears differ. Reach out. Stay connected, and help others do the same.