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Expert shares tips on caring for older adults during pandemic
Area Agency on Aging
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Expert shares tips on caring for older adults during pandemic

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The unprecedented coronavirus pandemic has brought particular challenges to older adults, who are in a high-risk category for contracting the virus, and their loved ones who are struggling to care for them while social distancing.

Mary Mitchell, a family caregiver specialist with the Western Piedmont Council of Governments’ Area Agency on Aging, recently spoke with The News Herald about problems older adults and their caregivers are facing and how they can make the best out of a difficult situation.

“Social isolation is a major concern for older adults in general,” Mitchell said. “Now with the pandemic, many older adults, especially those who live alone, are dealing with the effects of social isolation. Many activities that seniors enjoyed before the pandemic, such as attending group exercise at the senior center, participating in activities at their church or volunteering, are all things that they cannot do right now. Staying at home alone and watching the news all day can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety and feeling overwhelmed. It is very important during this time that we reach out and provide extra support to older adults, especially those that live alone.”

She shared things people can do to support the older adults in their lives.

“Checking in on seniors with a simple phone call is a great way to be in touch and help relieve these feelings of loneliness,” Mitchell said. “It can also be an opportunity to learn if the senior needs any help with groceries, medications yard work or other needs. Sending a simple card or note in the mail is a great way to connect with a senior and let them know you are thinking about them.”

She noted that more restaurants and other businesses are offering free delivery services that seniors can take advantage of.

“If they do not have access to the internet, you could help them order these items online and have them shipped or delivered,” Mitchell said. “These services take just a little time to help someone receive the things they need, and can relieve stress or anxiety about how they are going to get the things they need.”

This could turn out to be a life-saving measure.

“We also need to remind our seniors to stay home and protect themselves,” Mitchell said. “We know they are anxious to get out of the house and run errands to go shop for items in person, but they need to be reminded of the risks. If we can offer to help our parents, grandparents or neighbors by picking up items for them or arranging for online orders and delivery, we can lower their risk of exposure.”

Caregivers also should remind their older loved ones to stay active while quarantining.

“Offer to meet your senior neighbor or friend outside and take a walk,” Mitchell said. “Instead of focusing on the things they cannot do, help to come up with things they can do, like gardening, reading, or taking a walk. Offer to check out books from the library for them or offer to bring puzzles for them to enjoy. Any of these contacts or assistance with a senior can be very reassuring and also a comfort during the time of unknown for all of us.”

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She suggested asking open-ended questions if an older adult is reluctant to take people up on offers of help to solicit more information.

“Beginning a conversation with a senior about what we are all experiencing can be the catalyst for helping ease their minds and assuring them they can express their concerns to you,” Mitchell said. “Discussions about current circumstances and all of the unknowns and reassurance that things will be better once we are past the pandemic can be very helpful.”

Addressing seniors’ fears of losing their independence will take special care.

“Most everyone appreciates having their own independence and understandably will try to protect it at any cost,” Mitchell said. “Acknowledging this and assuring someone that your help can assist with their independence as much as possible helps reduce their anxiety. Seniors like to be helpful in return. See if you can find a way that they can help you in return or ways they can help the community like sewing and making masks or calling and checking in on others. These conversations can help someone feel more connected, less isolated and help move things in a positive direction.”

If people have older adults living in their home, they will need to take steps to keep them safe by following guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, especially if the seniors have pre-existing health conditions.

“This includes social distancing, washing hands frequently and wearing face coverings when out in public,” Mitchell said. “Seniors, especially, are ‘safer at home’ and should limit their exposure to others. If you live with an older adult, you and other family members should also limit your exposure to others to lessen risk of infection. Frequent cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and fixtures in the home is an excellent avenue for keeping your home as safe as possible for the whole family.”

Older adults who are in care facilities and their families are struggling with restrictions on visits. Residents may feel lonely and isolated, while their loved ones feel a sense of powerlessness. Mitchell shared ways families are connecting while still staying safe.

“Family members can arrange for ‘window visits,’ where they can visit their loved one and see them through the window and talk on the phone,” she said. “Most facilities have increased their capabilities to be able to use devices such as an iPad to allow their residents to FaceTime their loved ones regularly. You can also help stay connected with your loved ones by having flowers delivered, mailing cards or drawings from grandchildren, dropping off gifts — especially activities that can help keep them mentally active, like adult coloring books, large print word search, large print books, colorful magazines, etc. One family put together a special photo book for their loved one with pictures of family members.”

Mitchell said there are community resources available to help older adults and their caregivers navigate the pandemic.

“The Western Piedmont Council of Governments’ Area Agency on Aging is the recipient of funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act,” she said. “These funds are to support older adults and their caregivers who live in Alexander, Burke, Caldwell and Catawba counties in response to the pandemic. The AAA is available to help with a variety of items, such as access to meals, groceries, pharmacy items, cleaning supplies, face coverings, incontinence supplies, assistive technologies, etc. The AAA can also help connect you with other community resources.”

For information, call the agency at 828-485-4257 or visit wp cog.org/area-agency-on-aging.

Tammie Gercken can be reached at tgercken@morganton.com.

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