All across California, seniors and caregivers suddenly find themselves in isolation due to COVID-19 and the Governor’s “Shelter-in-Place” ruling. While this ruling is ultimately for the greater good of protecting our most vulnerable populations, families can take steps to help their loved ones combat the potential risks of feeling socially isolated and cut-off from others.
St. Paul’s Senior Services is here to offer some advice and tips for seniors and caregivers, so we turned to our Resident Services Director at St. Paul’s Manor, Cheryl Cohen, who holds a B.A. in Psychology and an M.A. in Gerontology. She is currently working hard with St. Paul’s administration to keep residents safe while supporting their needs. St. Paul’s Manor is an independent living community for active seniors in San Diego
Q. What should seniors and caregivers know about social isolation during COVID-19?
A. Now, with COVID-19, the times have changed. Along with the risk of coronavirus infection, comes the risk of social isolation. It is difficult for seniors to balance these competing problems. During a time of social distancing, there are ways for all of us to stay socially connected. When we think of it, it doesn’t take much to reach out to someone else in a similar situation. It can be helpful to talk with someone with the same issues and maintain that connection throughout this crisis.
Q. What are some words of advice during these difficult times?
A. Stay in touch with the people close to you, especially those who are also social distancing. The C.D.C. is recommending that senior retirement communities create “buddy systems” to make sure vulnerable and hard-to-reach people stay connected, particularly to news about COVID-19. This can be done remotely through a church, social group, or daily email blasts. Stay informed, but stay calm. If you cannot get the supplies you need, improvise as best you can, and reach out to agencies, who can help if you need to. Do not be afraid to ask for help; that is why volunteers and assistance agencies are out there, and many of them are stepping up in new ways during this crisis.
Q. If a senior is isolated from their family, how can their family still help?
A. You finally have the time to learn new technology! FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and all sorts of online options exist to talk with family and friends. And you don’t have to be tech-savvy. Doing the basics is easy, and for most people, fun. If setting up an account is daunting, call and ask a neighbor, niece, or nephew for help and a quick tutorial. Another idea is for families to put in requests for a special talent their senior family member or friend may have, such as paintings and drawings, knitting or crocheting, poems, etc. This will help keep seniors occupied and feeling like they have a purpose during long days spent at home.
Q. If a caregiver is isolating with their loved one, what can they do to stay busy?
A. It may sound counterintuitive, but you can still remain a part of the community, even if the goal is to be separate from it all right now. Many organizations — political parties, faith-based groups, nonprofits — rely on volunteers to make phone calls. You can do that activity right at home, tag-teaming with a caregiver. Also, completing unfinished projects, clearing out closets and washing of belongings to donate (when the isolation is over), preparing meals, writing real letters, watching movies, and playing games are all things that can be done at home together.
Q. Any advice on limiting media input while staying informed?
A. It may be best to watch or listen to those media stations that do not ruffle your feathers. Maybe you like Public Radio and your friends like Fox TV, but pick what you like, not what irritates. Also, don’t over-do it. Watch a news update in the morning, then check in again at night. Don’t stay with it all evening — 30 minutes or an hour should be plenty. The news will still be there when you next check-in.
Q. How is St. Paul’s working with its most vulnerable seniors to keep them safe and encouraged?
A. While on a normal basis, we work hard to have as many different activities as possible available to our residents, during the current COVID-19 event, we are asking people to be patient about cancelations and not to gather in large groups. We do send out regular updates about what we are doing so that our residents know that we are trying our best to keep everyone safe. Our residents now have the use of tablets or iPads so that they can schedule their use for Zoom, Facetime, or other video visits with physicians, family, and friends. We are also now doing grocery shopping for the residents several times a week so that they can get the essentials they need without having to leave the facility.
Q. Any tips for making sure seniors are still moving/exercising? Is it still ok to go for a walk outdoors?
A. Things are changing rapidly, and with the Governor’s “Shelter-in-Place” order, residents at St. Paul’s are asked not to leave the community at this time. Our residents are considered at high-risk for exposure given their age, so we have a responsibility to protect them. For seniors who live in their own homes, while the government advises them to stay inside, outdoor walks away from others are not banned. But since there is still a risk-factor with venturing outside, seniors can exercise at home via senior workout apps, chair exercise print-outs, YouTube videos, or even simple ideas like committing to stand every time a T.V. commercial comes on.
Q. What resources are available to seniors who are isolated?
A. Even the most accessible agencies are having to take precautions now and are utilizing online assistance. Project C.A.R.E., a service of San Diego County Aging and Independent Services, keeps seniors living alone from being totally isolated. It provides referrals to community resources, assistance with completing a Vial of Life, and reassurance calls, plus other services. Although their phone menu can be long, they have the most up-to-date referrals available. They can also be reached by filling out a form. 211 San Diego is also a very good repository to find just the type of services you need. St. Paul’s has also compiled this list of local San Diego resources both for seniors and families to use during the COVID-19 crisis.
Remember, “Shelter-in-Place” does not have to mean complete social isolation, and even a potentially threatening virus should not force us to be alone. Now, more than ever, people need to utilize smart ways to stay connected.
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