How to help seniors in the quarantine

9 ways to help older loved ones, friends and neighbours ride it out

We all know by now that seniors are most at risk in the coronavirus epidemic and that social distance and isolation is the best way to stop the spread of the virus. It’s also true, though, that isolation is mentally and emotionally unhealthy, especially for the 25% of senior Canadians living alone. Due to social distancing and recommended self-isolation, seniors are spending more time alone now than ever before. However, the epidemic can be a time for people to make a connection with senior neighbours and acquaintances, and to get creative in how we interact with older friends and family.

Nine ways to reach out to seniors during the quarantine

1. Run errands for them. "There are plenty of ways to help seniors around you," says BC Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie. "It could be anything from helping a senior get some groceries, taking out their garbage, bringing over a cooked meal or bringing them up to speed on the latest COVID-19 recommendations from our provincial health officer," she says. "These are things we can all do to help and they are important measures to keep seniors who are living in the community healthy and to reduce anxiety both for seniors and for their family members." 

2. Call them regularly. This is the easiest thing to do, typical for family members. However, why not reach out to one senior outside your family, such as a neighbour or someone from church, or just someone you see regularly in the area? “Seniors appreciate calls so that they do not feel totally isolated,” says Magda Zecevic, a Toronto real estate agent who works with seniors. “They are  always happy to chat with you, to shorten and brighten up their day.” 

You can also introduce seniors to other communication means that further break their isolation ...

3. Use or introduce them to interactive technology. If they're unfamiliar with some recent developments in online interaction, this is a great way to add variety to your interactions and give older family and friends something new to play with. Various platforms each have their own features, of course. Here’s a quick glance at some of the popular choices:

  • Skype and FaceTime (from Apple) have been popular for many years, but if they’ve never used them, now’s a great time to learn these video chat applications.
  • Zoom allows you to share your screen, among other things, so you can show them things online, etc. 
  • Snapchat is famously targeted at teens and tweens but there’s nothing to stop grandma from enjoying the frivolous fun of Snapchat’s many filters and having some fun with her grandkids. 

For all of these, seniors do not need to be tech-savvy. Once you get into them there is lots of fun to be had. They can use these as new ways of adding variety to their online interactions with other friends and family, also. 

It can also be fun to sync up technology such as Netflix and other streaming services and watch a show or an old movie "together" in spite of being apart. 

4. Drop off a care package of things to do. This is a thoughtful idea for those in self-isolation for a couple weeks, perhaps having traveled. If you create a care package of things like favourite DVDs or Blu-Rays, music, puzzles, etc., wipe everything down thoroughly with hand sanitizer, then put them in a sealed zip lock bag with a note. If you keep your social distance, this may be an occasion for a brief visit. If  so, this can also be “a good time to see if they are eating properly and have the medication they need,” says Zecevic.

5. Connect with them through their favourite music and memories. One suggestion for a wonderful gesture is to create a helpful, positive playlist with your favourite senior in mind. Curating a playlist of favourite oldies, or music that brings back memories is a great way to generate positive vibes. 

Wendy Duggleby, a University of Alberta professor who specializes in aging, recommends sharing old photos. Old photos bring back good memories. "One thing we know from research," she says "is even people that have severe forms of dementia will respond to pictures."

6. Give the gift of art. For elderly loved ones who are in isolation, get the grandkids to make them artwork. This will have the added bonus of giving school kids something to do. If you yourself are artistically inclined make them something personal that lets them know you’re thinking of them. 

7. Encourage them to be active in their home, even if their outside time is cut. Of course, if they have mobility concerns, they should avoid stairs. And if you know that their home is cluttered, you should also be wary of encouraging movement in their home. However, stretching is one simple way that they can keep limber in times that are overly conducive to sedentary living. Review our list of senior exercises for some you might think are appropriate for your loved one. Sitting exercises are also a great activity.

There are also ways to creatively adapt to isolation. For example, if there's a golf lover you know, you can easily create a makeshift indoor golf green using a putter, a ball, and a cup. 

8. Encourage them to temper their news diet. Many seniors who are alone fall into the habit of leaving the TV on, sometimes for “the company.” During a time like now, it becomes repetitious and disheartening, of course, bringing on needless anxiety and even depression. Here’s some good advice: watch a news update in the morning, then check in again at night. An hour per session is all anyone needs, really. If they feel the need to have the TV on, the best thing for the soul is BBC Earth or channels like that. 

Some people have basic cable packages, with limited selection. It may be a nice gift to step in and buy them an expanded bundle that includes channels like BBC Earth (just noted), the History Channel, and others with programming that’s very appealing to people in this age group. 

Online there is a lot of content that’s specifically appealing to seniors. For example, we love the relaxed pace of Jimmy's Old Time Radio, and videos like this one

9. Encourage them to reach out to other seniors. If you get them to take up the interactive technology listed above, they can take part in activities together. Social isolation does not have to mean an end of socializing. Introduce them to social networks they might not be using such as LinkedIn or Facebook. They may be surprised at how much they enjoy these. For some, it can be a way of making new friends over long distances, and opening up their world in ways that they might not have previously taken the time for. 

They can also be encouraged to “buddy up” with other seniors in their community or social circle, to check in on each other regularly. There are also many online games that are interactive and can replace the need for face-to-face board games, etc. 

"In times of crisis, all of us need something constructive to do," says Duggleby. "Seniors, like anybody else, like to help people. It's critical to human beings to have social interaction."

Sources and further information

"Connect with Your Elderly Neighbours During the COVID-19 Crisis." Nelson Star. 

How you can Help Seniors through COVID-19 isolation.

"Living Arrangements of Seniors." Stats Canada.

"How to help seniors feel less isolated"

~ Jim Huinink

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