Article by Jessica Kirby

Isolation is a funny thing. As children, we fear it, sure there are monsters lurking where grown-ups are not, deeply feeling being relegated to our rooms when we’ve misbehaved, left feeling like our parents’ room is an ocean away at night, in the dark, as our dreams unfold.

In adolescence and adulthood, we go a few different ways. Some of us stay in the mindset that isolation is difficult, and we fill our lives with varying degrees of intentional connection with others. We might love being alone and seek it most of the time; we might like alone time, and seek moments of isolation, for instance in the woods; or, we might fear it, always needing the steady presence of another to feel safe and stimulated.

Later in life, the pattern shifts. Our elders begin to see isolation in a new way—as separation from their families and control over their lives. Being alone but physically or mentally incapable of travelling to see family, take themselves out for lunch, or even get their own groceries, takes a toll on a person. But it is our connection with others—even for those who prefer a life in relative solitude—that enables us to survive and thrive. Aging leaves the elderly vulnerable to social isolation, which has health consequences, such as cognitive decline, depression, anxiety, and heart disease.

Toss in a pandemic, and the situation worsens. Normally heightened fear of declining health worsens under the threat of an invisible virus that is plaguing the evening news and, in many cases, keeping loved ones away. In facilities when there is an outbreak, the isolation requirements are much more stringent than the 10-14 days afforded the rest of the population, and being alone at home can leave the elderly feeling closed in, forgotten, and vulnerable.

Caring for an elderly loved one during the pandemic means taking some important steps, the most important of which is to keep yourself well. Wash your hands, wear your mask, sneeze into your elbow, sanitize the shared surfaces in your home, and above all else, keep your bubble small. We are all suffering, we all miss our friends, but if we don’t keep to the rules, we are going to be in this state for a very, very long time.

Practise social distancing, but not social isolation. Of course, visitation should be limited with the elderly at this time, but it doesn’t hurt to call, stop by and visit on the porch or by phone through the window, or if your loved one is tech-savvy, Zoom is a fabulous option.

Keep elders involved and give them purpose. Create projects, like knitting scarves for the family in anticipation of winter, sorting family memorabilia and photos, writing out family recipes, or calling them up for opinions and advice give elders purpose and a sense of belonging.

While we have so much going on in these pandemic times, we must stay connected with our elderly, but if we can’t, we can help them engage in activities that help them manage the effects of isolation. Science proves that elderly people who remain stimulated and engaged in purpose-driven activity are fall less likely to suffer the health effects associated with isolation, and there are ways to help them do this, even from afar.

  1. Pursue hobbies and interests. Provide materials for crocheting, knitting, sewing, and other handicrafts, which, besides helping with depression and loneliness, help preserve dexterity, alleviate the symptoms of arthritis, and keep the mind sharp.
  2. Stay active. Though ability will vary, elderly people who stay strong and flexible have improved cognitive ability, self-confidence, and emotional stability. Set your loved one up with books or videos on Tai chi or chair yoga and encourage them to take walks or wheelchair into the sunshine every day to help to keep the blood flowing, the confidence building, and the heart in good condition.
  3. Prepare nutritious meals. Whether cooking for oneself or having a meal service prepare food, elderly people have specific dietary needs that, when met, can help battle fluctuations in brain function, combat depression, and improve mood. Drop off food, arrange for a meal service, or challenge your loved one to a Zoom cook-off or family dinner.
  4. Connect, connect, connect. Although this can be difficult, especially given the current state of things, regular connections with loved ones, like phone calls, Zoom meetings, dropping off care packages to facilities or homes if contact isn’t possible, sharing music, art, or creative time all promote a sense of well-being and hopefulness. There is no better thing you can do than help your loved one know you are there, you are thinking of them, you will get through this together, and you will be there when this is all over.

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