While we must continue practicing social distancing to protect vulnerable communities — particularly the elderly — we must also consider their needs for social interaction and their mental well-being, says Isaac Bogoch, infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto and the University Health Network. In seniors, feelings of loneliness and social isolation have been linked to depression, worsening physical health, and increased stress. In response to this, many senior centres, exercise studios, religious organizations, and other community groups have adapted workshops and social gatherings for online platforms. Consider signing up for one of these events and participating with an elder to connect with them virtually. For instance, the YMCA uploads easy-to-follow exercise videos for all ages, from young children to active older adults, that you can follow along with a senior over the phone or video chat. Dancing with Parkinson’s has also started to offer free live dance classes through Zoom during the week for seniors.
For elders who are not familiar with using computers or smartphones, Wendy Duggleby, a nursing professor at the University of Alberta, warns that introducing them to new communication tools may lead to social avoidance. Instead, make efforts to adapt your methods of communication to their comfort level. Rather than a video chat, Duggleby recommends scheduling an old-fashioned phone call. If possible, talk about plans for the future that you can look forward to. Even phone calls may not work for all seniors, particularly those who are hard of hearing. In such cases, writing letters works as a perfect alternative. Duggleby also recommends mailing seniors old photos of themselves with family and friends, labelled with names and dates on the back: “One thing we know from research is even people that have severe forms of dementia will respond to pictures,” she says.
For many of us, the loss of structure in our day-to-day lives can result in disturbed sleep schedules and eating habits. For elders, especially those who are also managing cognitive decline, this lack of structure can be even more disorienting. To prevent the feeling that one day is simply melting into the next, it is helpful to stick to a schedule to maintain a sense of normalcy. You may consider scheduling a daily phone call to check in on your loved ones, for instance, or even virtual meetings with technologically inclined elders.
Dr. Roger Wong suggests families find ways to synchronize activities with seniors. As seniors in care homes or retirement communities face changes to their social routines, Wong recommends finding ways to virtually recreate them. For example, many seniors who might be used to eating meals with others are now having them alone. It may be helpful to recreate this ritual by eating dinner with an elder over a video call. “Adhere to the same routines as much as possible,” says Wong. “What you’re changing is just the medium.” For those uncomfortable with technology, a routine such as reading to a senior over the phone or having a grandparent read a story over the phone to their grandchildren can be equally helpful in adding structure to their days.
One of the best ways to protect seniors is to ensure they can remain in self-isolation. This means making essential supplies, such as medication and groceries, available to seniors living on their own without requiring them to travel outside. Both cognitive and mobility issues can pose challenges for seniors, making trips to grocery stores and preparing food especially difficult. Luckily, there are many alternatives that you can make use of:
- Order Food Online: Many companies, such as Amazon Fresh, offer subscriptions for grocery delivery. Some local grocery stores may also be offering similar services at this time. Check out this list of 20 Toronto grocers who are offering delivery services, and make sure to call and check your local produce stores to see what options are available to you.
- Meal Kits: For seniors who struggle to make food themselves, meal kits are fully prepared meals with pre-portioned ingredients that make it easier to cook your own meals. You can sign up for subscription plans with companies such as Blue Apron or Hello Fresh to start receiving meals, or you could make your own meal kits and drop them off at a loved one’s home to help ease the cooking process.
- Nextdoor: Nextdoor is an online community which you can use to connect with neighbors and other locals in your community to request a service or ask about resources. This is a great place to see what volunteer groups might be available to offer assistance when it comes to grocery shopping and delivering.
If you’re in need of additional assistance, you may want to familiarize yourself with the support agencies in your community and how to reach them. The 211 helpline and online database can connect you to people with the right information and services you’re in search of simply by dialling 211 on any phone. For resources specific to seniors and caregivers, make note of the following hotlines:
- Toronto Seniors Helpline: A single point of access for seniors and caregivers to receive information and access to community, home, and crisis services including meals on wheels and supportive counselling over the phone for seniors and caregivers.
- Seniors Safety Line: The SSL provides contact and referral information for local agencies across the province that can assist in cases of elder abuse. Trained counsellors also provide safety planning and supportive counseling for older adults who are being abused or at-risk of abuse.
- Friendly Neighborhood Hotline: A single phone number for seniors living in low-income housing in Toronto can call to connect to a network of volunteers who can help with picking up groceries and household essentials.
With social distancing and self-isolation measures in place, it’s important that every generation’s needs are treated with empathy and patience. If you know of an elder in your community who may be vulnerable, it might be helpful to check in on them by phone, by email, or in person (at a distance) if possible. Remember to respect senior’s autonomy, and always ask before you assume their needs. Ask if they have medication to refill or are in need of a grocery run, and most importantly let them know that they are not alone.