10 tips for connecting with older relatives in COVID-19 times
Date: May 8, 2020
Author: Dr Kristina Gottschall, CRRMH Research Associate
Almost all those things that were keeping my 85-year old dad (a very reluctantly retired orchardist) ticking after the death of Mum a few years ago, have all but been taken away from him due to Coronavirus. The need to stay distanced from other people has meant Dad has had to give up visiting friends in their homes, doing the rounds to the aged-care facilities to visit the ‘oldies’ as my dad puts it (even though many of these friends are younger than him), weekly church services, and exercise classes two times a week with the cardio crew at the local health service. Even the cleaner, as a part of his aged care package, has cancelled. Worst still is that I can’t see him face-to-face like I normally would. Living alone on a farm in a big empty house, I’d visit him 2 or 3 times a week, taking my dogs to him for ‘puppy daycare’ while I was at work, and staying for dinner or staying the night. Just to make sure he was ok. But being smack bang in the high-risk category because of his age, and an underlying heart condition, I just can’t see Dad like I normally would in case I expose him to the horrid virus.
Initially, Dad was a little gung-ho, a little bit laissez faire about the virus. Often, he would talk about the tough times of living through WWII and immigrating with his family to Australia with one suitcase each and a few shillings their pocket….so what’s the worst a silly flu could do!? There is a hilarious clip doing the social media rounds, where a 40-something son forbids his Baby Boomer dad from going and having drinks with friends, and the dad has a tantrum at the front door saying that ‘It’s not fair, because Dave lets his dad out’. It’s a joke, but one I relate to in real life.
But then, once the gravity of the virus and its devastation (as seen on the nightly news) sunk in, Dad became quite anxious and even overly paranoid. At one point, he was not wanting to leave the house at all, even though the independence, mental stimulation and exercise gained from getting his own groceries outweighed the risk of catching the virus.
The isolation, daily sad news and misinformation from well-meaning friends and ridiculous talkback radio was leaving Dad confused, anxious and depressed. Barely able to manage the tv remote or his mobile phone (weekly tutorials are on-going), online technologies were also not going to be solution for us. So, my hubby and I decided that we had to see my Dad face-to-face at least once a week, just to make sure he was ok.
For us it is important to see him face-to-face, especially the longer this goes on because as much as Coronavirus is a physical challenge, it is a mental one too. When visiting, we physically distance from him, spray everything we touch with antiseptic spray and use the hand sanitiser liberally. Every Sunday we share a meal, go for a walk in the sun and have chat. It’s our new tradition in these COVID-19 times. For Dad, it’s like a reset. Our presence calms him, distracts him and makes him feel less alone. This builds resilience, and hopefully that’s what is going to get him through this health crisis.
We understand that visiting someone face-to-face might not be an option for everyone, so you need to do what’s right for you and your older relatives at this time.
Here’s some other tips that might help:
1. Be kind – to yourself and your elders, these are tough times. Try not to patronise or get angry. Think about what message you want them to hear and how best to give that message. If you’re not the best person to deliver it, arrange for someone else to talk to them (another relative or trusted friend, etc).
2. Look after yourself as a carer – you’re no good to anyone if you’re not in a good space physically or mentally – check in here.
3. Have a plan – in times of uncertainly, routines can be good and can be something to look forward to. What time each day/week are you going to check in with your older relative? Also have a plan in place for if either of you get sick.
4. Offer assistance – can you do their weekly shop, pick up their medication or can you drop off a special treat like a muffin or freshly brewed coffee? Or can you organise contactless delivery for them?
5. Help them stay active – do they like gardening? Perhaps you can send them some blubs or seeds. Find an online exercise class for seniors and/or exercise with them. Do they like cooking? Send a challenging recipe to them. Encourage healthy eating.
6. Suggest activities that keep the mind busy – puzzles, book club, online interactions, crossword, writing letters. See below.
7. Send a care package – You could include hand sanitiser, antiseptic wipes, or some nice soaps. Plus you could include a puzzle book, a novel, magazine or some lollies or favourite bickies. Return to the days of snail mail by sending a postcard or handmade artwork. It’s a good time to encourage grandchildren to write letters or send drawings.
8. Ring your older relative – daily, weekly, every few weeks – whenever you can.
• Try to remain positive, talk about something good from your day, or something interesting the kids are up to or something silly the dog did.
• Send text messages if you can – exchanging a picture a day via text message, email or social media. Why not start a photo challenge?
9. Support online connections where possible – Get your older relative on the Government website to help them improve their IT skills, if they need to.
• Set-them up with online technology – FaceTime, Zoom, Facebook etc – facilitate/schedule buddy systems with family and friends. Organise video calls to share meal times or activities.
• Play a game online – Sudoku, word puzzles, Uno, checkers, Skribbl.io, trivia.
• Watch a movie together. Streaming services like Netflix Party and Metastream will let you chat with each other while you watch your favourite flicks.
• Set-up an online book club. Set-up or join online clubs with your older relative.
• Schedule online chats with them or their friends – be the host and help with IT issues.
• Share a virtual experience – such as visiting a zoo, museum, or gallery online together. Watch live concerts online.
• Learn a language together – try Duolingo. Or free language courses through Open University.
• Listen to podcasts together or an audiobook through a free library service, ABC’s listen app, Apple podcasts, or Spotify.
• Do an online class together – try Eventbrite to find online events and classes.
10. Give people purpose –
• Family history – encourage them to organise the family photo album, compose some accompanying text or record their life story.
• Origami Folding cranes. The Japanese legend goes that if you fold a thousand cranes you will be granted a wish. This may be a lovely project to do together. Folding a crane each day can provide hope and also can symbolise we’re a day closer to actually seeing each other again. Then when social distancing is over, you can bring all the cranes together for display. Here is an easy tutorial on how to fold a crane.
• Sewing or knitting projects for charity – from Trauma Teddies to sewing sanitary pads for girls in the third world, the need is immense.
• Volunteer – Many organisations such as not-for-profits, political parties and faith-based groups rely on volunteers to make phone calls. Check out the websites Volunteering Australia, emergency.volunteer.org.au, or GoVolunteer to see if there’s an opportunity that could be a good fit.
• Connect with the neighbours – leave notes in letterboxes with contact information for those who need someone to talk to, help with errands, or provide assistance navigating information in different languages.
Older people are most at risk of the virus and are more likely to feel lonely. Now, more than ever, people need to find creative and smart ways to stay connected. Social distancing does not mean social isolation, and even a potentially deadly virus should not force elderly relatives to be alone.