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Supporting Older Adults Amidst COVID-19

By Laura Shannonhouse, Ph.D., Mary Chase Mize, M.S., Matthew Fullen, Ph.D., Jamie Aten, Ph.D., & Michael Porter, M.S.

The perils of social isolation and loneliness and how a lack of connection is dangerous for certain older adults. Is it possible that during this period of continued physical distancing? In this article we explore how we foster more social connection with older people. 

The Power of a Phone or Video Call

Might there be older adults in your family, in your life, whom you love that are at risk of social isolation? Are there older members of your faith community that might be further isolated as a result of COVID-19? Connecting with them is a powerful way to promote life! There are many ways to stay connected; never underestimate the power of a call. In addition to talking and catching up, there are more creative ways to spend quality time at a safe distance. Together, you could…

  • Plan to watch a favorite television show
  • Watch a game show (we humbly suggest Jeopardy!)
  • Do a crossword puzzle or trivia game
  • Listen to music or read a book
  • Do any number of creative, fun activities that are meaningful to you and your loved older adult.

It is even more powerful if you schedule a regular time to talk. Make connecting just a part of your routine in our new, COVID-19 world. Many older adults don’t want to bother or burden loved ones. So, taking the initiative, and being consistent, and even pushing a little to connect when the older adult says they are “OK” can sure go a long way. It is often hard for older adults to form new connections, yet social connection and belonging are often very appreciated by them. This makes the connection from their existing loved ones (i.e., you) that much more vital!

Having an Intentional, Structured Conversation

Some of the most culturally sensitive, respectful, and impactful ways counselors and psychologists work with older adults are through early recollections (ERs) and life review, which are forms of reminiscence therapy. However, you don’t have to be a psychologist to reminisce. All you have to do is invite older adults to talk openly about their childhood/adolescent/adult experiences. Frequently, older persons would rather spend time there, reminiscing, than in their current emotional and psychological state. Wouldn’t we all right now? In the context of COVID-19, asking about favorite memories can serve to unplug and foster meaning.

Recalling ERs is often received by older persons as an acknowledgment of their wisdom and expressing an interest in their well-being. Anecdotally, the first author had a conversation with an older loved one about her ERs a few years ago, and it very much deepened their relationship. Here are some sample questions to foster reminiscing:

  • Can you share a favorite childhood memory?
  • Might you remember what it was like in elementary school?
  • What is the most impressive thing you can remember from your teenage years?
  • Are there meaningful life events that come to mind from middle age or older adulthood?
  • Who were the influential people in your life?
  • Can you tell me about… College (if attended)? Your work/career? Significant relationships? Major life events? Marriage? Kids?

Operate through an organized effort

One form of outreach, home-delivered meals (HDM), is provided nationwide to homebound seniors and organized through county senior services offices. Many have organized routing systems to deliver incredibly healthy and medically suitable meals with loving-kindness; this practice is often referred to as “more than a meal.” While senior centers organize HDM differently, these services are under stress everywhere. This programming is essential to the health and well-being of the most vulnerable older adults and is often not possible without volunteers. In addition, many of those who deliver meals are themselves older persons. They value service to and connection with their homebound peers but need to protect themselves—this crisis really has even hindered the most active and able older persons from being engaged in their communities. 

We spoke with Tori Strawter-Tanks, the director of Senior Services for Clayton County, Georgia, about their needs during the pandemic. She reported that across metro-Atlanta, many older adults “are actually afraid to have people come into their homes,” and “some even canceled the home services we provide.” More than ever, the older adults they serve require both emotional and practical support. This means people need to both check in on them and provide tangible support, such as grocery shopping, arranging for medication delivery, or other errands.

While donations are always needed, there are practical ways you can help, and we need a village. First, continue volunteering if you already do. Many volunteers have been struggling during COVID-19, trying to figure out work, adjusting to childcare and other workplace challenges. Rest assured that CDC safety recommendations are being followed to ensure the safety and well-being of HDM volunteers.

Even though HDM organizers have adjusted to “no contact” strategies, the tagline of “more than a meal” remains. Now HDM volunteers set down meals at the front door, back up 6-8 feet, and connect from a distance (i.e., ask how the older adult is doing, reflect how challenging the current pandemic is, and/or just say “I am glad to see you today” with a smile). If you want to volunteer, use the Eldercare Locator to find your local senior service office and ask how you can help. Now is the time!

Connection and volunteering, while simple, are powerful ways to buffer loneliness, foster connection, and promote life. Connect or volunteer to the degree you are able to. Even a small, short, brief call saying, “Hey, I’m thinking about you, and I’m sending you a virtual hug” can go a long way. Please know that you already have all that you need to promote life with a socially isolated older adult: a caring heart and desire to connect.

*This work was supported by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), via the Association for Community Living (ACL) Grant #: 90INNU0010-01-00. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of HHS.

Recommended Resources
ACL Eldercare Locator, Toll-Free: 1-800-677-1116 Administration for Community Living  Resources for family caregivers  How to make a household care plan  American Association of Retired Persons (AARP)  Psychology Today Therapy Directory

Laura Shannonhouse, Ph.D., Ed.S., M.Ed., NCC, LPC,is associate professor and Principal Investigator for the H.O.P.E. Lab at Georgia State University. Her research interests focus on crisis intervention and disaster response.

Mary Chase Mize is a doctoral student studying Counselor Education and Practice, as well as Gerontology (master of arts, research track). She is an Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) trainer, a National Certified Counselor (NCC) and a 2018-2019 Chi Sigma Iota Leadership in Counseling Fellow. Her doctoral practicum is with Jewish Family & Career Services of Atlanta, where she works primarily with older adults in the community.

Matthew Fullen, Ph.D., M.Div., M.A.,is an assistant professor of Counselor Education at Virginia Tech, as well as an affiliate faculty for the Virginia Tech Center for Gerontology. He has worked with older adults since 2005, first in the affordable senior housing industry, and then as a licensed professional clinical counselor.

Jamie Ate, Ph.D. is founder and co- director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College and Blanchard Professor of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership. Follow on Twitter at @drjamieaten or visit jamieaten.com. He is also co-founder of National COVID-19 Day. 

Michael Porter, M.S., is a physical and social scientist, with degrees in meteorology, chemistry, biochemistry, political science, and anthropology. He is a doctoral candidate in meteorology at Florida State University, working with NOAA’s SREF (short range ensemble forecasting) system, advancing knowledge on redemptive forecasting. He strives to foster scientific thinking and compassionate understanding across multiple contexts and is published in the areas of air pollution, Lagrangian flow modeling, and suicide prevention/intervention. 

This post was originally published on Hope + Resilience | Psychology Today and adapted with permission for use by National COVID-19 Day.

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