Combating isolation: Local expert shares 5 things loved ones can do to help seniors

Written by Megan Gloss of the Telegraph Herald

The COVID-19 pandemic has created abundant obstacles. But those impacting mental and emotional health for older adults in the throes of isolation inside and outside of care facilities could be a matter of life and death, according to national studies and local experts.

“It has been a difficult time, to say the least,” said Gretchen Brown, president and CEO of Stonehill Communities in Dubuque. “We’ve been very fortunate that our scenario has been much better due to regular testing of our residents and staff. Early on, we could offer outside visits. But now with winter coming into the picture and the state of the local positivity rate limiting our internal visits to our end-of-life residents — and we don’t have many residents who are at that end-of-life stage — we’ve had to work closely with families to combat isolation so that we don’t see things like depression, loss of appetite. A lot can happen if you’re not paying attention.”

A study conducted this year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that an estimated 25% of adults 65 and older were socially isolated prior to the pandemic.

Since COVID-19 took hold, that number has more than doubled, according to experts, with seniors facing a greater lack of social interaction, resulting in loneliness and significant health risks.

Further studies from the National Centers for Health Statistics have shown that social isolation has been linked to poor physical and mental health in older adults. This includes an increase in blood pressure, obesity, depression and anxiety, as well as lower functioning of the immune system, poorer cognitive functioning and an increased risk of mortality.

Additionally, social isolation has been connected to an approximately 50% increased risk of developing dementia, a 29% increased risk of coronary heart disease and a 32% increased risk of a stroke.

But according to Brown, there are steps that family members and friends can take to ensure that their loved ones are able to engage in social interaction and connectivity, particularly amid the holidays.

“We try to have things happening as much as we can within individual units,” Brown said. “It might be bringing the refreshment cart up and down the hallways or planning socially distant activities so they can see other individuals and have healthy interactions. For families, it’s important to make sure they are coordinating with the residents regularly to connect with them.”

Here are a few ideas how:

1. Embrace technology. Brown said scheduling regular Zoom and FaceTime calls, in addition to telephone calls, can be a beneficial and easy way for family and friends to connect with loved ones.

“We’ve had an uptick in technology, providing tablets to residents,” she said. “Sometimes, a resident just wants to know that they can look forward to that call every Tuesday at a certain time. The thing to remember is that they just want to feel as thought someone is truly listening to them right now. That’s what matters most.”

2. Handwritten notes. In addition to technological perks, Brown said residents have appreciated cards and letters sent not only from family and friends but members of the community as well.

“Just knowing that there are people thinking about them can be helpful and uplifting,” she said. “It can really capture their hearts.”

3. Care packages. Brown also suggested combining items such as photos of people and places, memorable holiday ornaments or other meaningful items into a care package for loved ones.

“Share uplifting stories that are happening in the world to take them away from everything negative we have been inundated with,” she said. “They need something positive to focus on.”

4. Continuing traditions. Particularly heading into the holidays, Brown said it’s important continue honoring traditions as best as possible — even if it means they must be slightly altered.

“We had one family that always did Christmas cookie decorating together every year,” she said. “The family made a Zoom call with the resident. They were decorating cookies at home, and the resident was decorating cookies here at the same time. Other families and residents plan a random theme night, like Hawaiian night, where they dress up.”

This can be even more important if the loved one recently has suffered the loss of a family member or close friend.

“Maintaining traditions can help fill a huge void they might be feeling, especially if they have experienced loss,” Brown said. “During those times, they’re really wanting to hold on to traditions.”

5. Reminders at home. Brown emphasized that extra care isn’t limited to parents or grandparents living in care facilities. Those at home also can benefit from the effort.

“Making sure you’re paying attention to your loved ones’ mental health at home is important, too,” she said. “Move their chair near a window so they look outside. Encourage them to get outside for a walk and exercise. If they’re cooks, help them make healthy food choices or try a new recipe. Even engaging neighbors to connect with them if you’re living further away can let them know that they are being thought of.”

This article was originally published in the December 14th Edition of the Telegraph Herald and is available online at https://www.telegraphherald.com/news/features/article_12a52532-a451-5d80-ba06-9fc94ede76b7.html