Minding our elders: During coronavirus outbreak, we must remember our senior neighbors

Updated: Apr 8, 2020

Edith is 87 and lives in a small apartment in an affordable-housing complex. Her daughters live in another state and she doesn’t drive, so she relies on outside services, such as meals at a local senior center and rides to the doctor from a neighbor.
Since the coronavirus outbreak, the senior center has temporarily closed and her neighbor, who is also elderly and has asthma, is now staying at home. Edith is struggling to get her basic needs met.

For many older Americans, scenarios like these are reality. Some live in retirement homes, where the close proximity makes it more difficult to practice social distancing. Others must rely on outside sources – home health aides, meal-delivery services, case workers – to come into their homes to provide essential services.

This presents unique challenges for everyone, including those who provide care to them. At Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, our statewide Senior Independence team serves thousands of seniors statewide through our Retired Senior Volunteer Program, Volunteer and Senior Companions and Aging Life Care services.

We want to do everything we can to prevent any spread of this virus among our older residents.

On the other hand, we believe it’s our mission to deliver services to those who need us most, especially if they are homebound, unable to drive or have no one else to rely on.

With that in mind, our team has outlined the following guidelines, which will apply until further notice:

  • Suspending group activities but staying in touch. We are temporarily suspending several group activities that fall under our service area, including RSVP Bone Builders, Daybreak Respite Care at Legacy Living in Jamestown, and statewide Senior Companion and Volunteer Companion home visits.

Because “social distancing” can be very isolating, we are encouraging all Senior and Volunteer Companions to conduct and keep track of regular courtesy calls to their clients throughout this time period. And because some of our elderly volunteers are on fixed incomes, we are grateful that they will continue to receive a temporary stipend allowance granted by the federal Corporation for National and Community Services.

  • Aging Life Care, the program that offers the most critical services to our most vulnerable and elderly adults, as they involve trained caseworkers entering the homes of homebound elderly and vulnerable individuals who need services such as medical advocacy, transportation to essential appointments, important paperwork and other concerns. ALC staff will still conduct home visits, but only if clients and staff are healthy, clients are open to home visitors and staff have stringently followed federal guidelines regarding hygiene, social distancing and other preventative measures.

  • Our RSVP program coordinators have been checking in with our statewide network of 700+ volunteers and 100+ host station partners, to ensure they are making good choices about protecting themselves, are in contact with our volunteer site leaders and that they can answer any questions volunteers may have about social distancing and staying safe.

We are encouraging them to safely connect as much as possible with friends, family and each other using safe modes of communication such as email, Facetime, phone calls and texting.

Tips to help all seniors stay safe

Below, please find more general tips on ways senior citizens and their families can stay healthy, yet connected, during this challenging time:

  • Practice hygiene guidelines, such as using hand sanitizers or washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before and after eating or after receiving mail or meal deliveries. Seek medical help if you develop a fever, are short of breath or have a dry cough. Find more guidelines HERE.

  • Postpone non-essential doctor’s appointments. Telemedicine appointments, if available, can be a good substitute.

  • Talk to doctor about stockpiling prescriptions for at least a couple of months.

  • Take advantage of home meal-delivery, if available, but practice “social distancing” warnings (staying several feet away from the delivery person) and wash your hands with soap and water before and after eating.

  • Try to find ways to connect to others, despite “social distancing” warnings. Social interaction keeps us emotionally healthy, so take advantage of video tools like Skype, FaceTime and Zoom to visit with family and friends. If you’re not comfortable with that technology, email, texting, voice-texting and the good, old telephone are also excellent ways to connect.

  • Move a little. If you have a healthy heart and have received prior approval from a doctor,

try to exercise. Even light exercise may be beneficial in fighting the effects of coronavirus. It can help boost the body’s immune functions, decrease inflammation and spark production of those feel-good chemicals that fight depression. A daytime walk in a quiet neighborhood or trying out a beginner’s chair-exercise video on YouTube can be a good start.

  • Get enough food and rest. As much as possible, try to eat regular, balanced meals and get enough sleep. These basic things can keep our immune system strong.

  • Don’t be afraid to have honest conversations with your caregivers about hygiene. Double-check that home health aides are feeling healthy, washing their hands or using hand gel. Any equipment they bring in should be wiped down with disinfectant.

  • Beware of scam ‘buzzards.’ Be aware that there are some very bad people out there who are taking advantage of our fears and isolation to pull off various scams by email and phone. Here are some tips from the Federal Trade Commission to help you keep those scam buzzards at bay: https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/features/coronavirus-scams-what-ftc-doing

If you’re a friend, loved one or neighbor

Social distancing does not have to mean social isolation: We can still find ways to help our elderly friends, family members and neighbors.

Just think about how daunting it must seem for seniors to venture out and grab groceries or other necessities. It could almost feel like a matter of life and death.

Here’s how we can help:

  • Try touching base with them through a quick phone call, text or email. Ask: Do you have enough supplies? What errands can I run for you? Are your needs being met?

Gently remind them of the safety guidelines from the CDC.

  • When possible, advocate for elders, checking that home health aides and others who need to enter their homes are observing hygiene and social-distancing guidelines.

  • Send “happygrams.” Try sending emails containing cheerful letters, scanned photos, postcards and children’s artwork to recreational coordinators and administrators at nursing homes or retirement centers. They can then be printed out and shared with community residents. It’s a great way to remind them that their community is thinking of them, without putting them at risk. (Just be sure to call ahead first to make sure you are sending the mail to the right person!)

We’re all in this together, so let’s help each other!

– Tammy Swift

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