The pandemic has left those in skilled nursing, rehabilitation facilities and assisted living feeling isolated and often sad. Here’s what you can do to help.
The pandemic has hit everyone hard as we struggle to stay safe with social distancing, mask wearing and hand washing routines. But it’s worse for older adults in long-term care facilities, where the risk of a fatal outcome from catching the coronavirus is particularly high.
“Eight out of 10 deaths from COVID-19 have been from those age 65 or older,” according to Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, a family physician in Phoenix, Arizona. “The reason why is because our immune system is less effective at fighting infections as we get older. Also, having multiple other chronic diseases can complicate this virus.” So, it’s vitally important to protect this population and as a result, many facilities have banned face-to-face visits since March.
There are ways to mitigate the isolation. Video chat and conferencing platforms such as FaceTime, Skype, and Zoom work well to help your family member feel included and up to date. If your loved one doesn’t have a smartphone or other device to use, see if the facility has one to borrow and someone to help facilitate the call, if needed.
Ordinary calls are welcome, too. Set up a phone schedule with other family members to ensure the resident gets a daily call, or even one in the morning and one in the evening, if possible. Family members can send photos and videos. Although it’s hard to top grandchildren, a video of a walk in the woods or elsewhere outdoors can be a welcome change from the resident’s room.
Another idea is to share a virtual meal together, perhaps made with a family recipe. Some facilities will allow you to drop off a serving for the resident, so you can eat at the same time, chatting over the phone. Check if it’s okay to have food delivered from a restaurant; it can be a welcome change from the same old fare made onsite.
Print off some favorite photos and staple them together to make a booklet that the resident can page through again and again. You can caption the pages to identify family and friends. A new one could be delivered every week if it’s a hit.
Some residence facilities are allowing window visits. The resident stays indoors, seated near a main-floor window, and the visitor can “visit” through the glass. It may be possible to chat, and certainly you can exchange smiles. Homemade signs can be designed for special occasions like birthdays.
Older residents can enjoy the gift of a letter many times over. There’s the anticipation every time they go to the mailbox, the excitement when they see a letter, the fun of opening and reading it, and the continued comfort in reading it again and again. Keep your news cheery, with updates on family activities. Kids can add a note and/or draw a picture. Enclose a magnet or clip so the letter or pictures can stay in sight.
You can send a recorded text message so the resident can hear your voice over and over. Consider asking about long-ago events, such as “When we lived in Texas, you had a Girl Scout troop. Do you remember some of the things your troop did?” You can then leave a silent space for the resident’s response. If the resident has dementia, it may be played repeatedly.
Plants and Animals
Perhaps the resident would enjoy taking care of a small plant such as an orchid or succulent. Caring for something gives a sense of purpose and usefulness. Residents with dementia especially might enjoy having a stuffed dog or cat to cuddle and talk to. For about $110, you can even purchase robotic versions such as the Joy For All Companion Cat.
Send a Caregiver
If you are fortunate enough to have extra funds, consider having a caregiver visit the resident. Most facilities allow CNAs to enter, and having a visitor devoted just to the resident for a couple of hours can be enormously uplifting. This person may help with exercises, dust and tidy, assist with a project such as going through photos, facilitate calls, or simply engage the resident in conversation.
The resident may well have days, or every day, when he or she needs to vent — about the loneliness, the food, the staff, or whatever. You can help just by listening and commiserating. It’s a lousy time to be shut away, no matter how nice the facility. Elizabeth St. John, a licensed clinical social worker at Stanford Health Care, says that older adults need to talk to people who “can just listen and validate their feelings. Be the person who will bear witness to their sadness, stress, and anxiety and who will let them reminisce because this is a really sad time.”
You don’t have to bear the burden all by yourself. Residents love to hear from old friends and relatives. Spread the work around so that you don’t get caregiver burnout from afar.