Coronavirus has changed the way Australians live, making our elderly loved ones more vulnerable than ever. But with hard work, diligence, and a whole lot of love, you can guide them skillfully to safety, as they once did for you.
The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we live, and we are now facing new challenges each day. It is tough for anyone to keep up with the latest changes and restrictions, let alone our vulnerable elderly, who may struggle to understand how to keep themselves safe.
In this article, we will discuss common coronavirus risks that our parents, grandparents and other elderly members of the community will face during the pandemic, and how you can guide them safely through.
Personal hygiene is critical to prevent the spread of the virus. To maintain good hygiene, the Australian Department of Health suggests the following :
- Cough or sneeze into your elbow, or a tissue. Dispose of tissues immediately.
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water (more on this below).
- Use alcohol-based hand sanitiser, and carry it with you so that you can wipe shopping trolleys, baskets, or anything else you come into contact with.
- Don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth. If you have an irresistible itch, use the back of your hand or shoulder.
- Clean common surfaces like benchtops, desks, doorknobs, remove controls, etc.
- Clean common objects like mobiles, keys, wallets, and work passes.
- Open windows to allow fresh air to circulate through your home.
You should also consider the following:
- Coronavirus can stay on packaging for up to nine hours, so clean any packaging that is bought into your home, including for your groceries (more on food below).
- Take your shoes off at the door, so that you don’t tread the virus through your home.
- While it isn’t necessary to wear a mask unless you’re sick, it’s important that any carers or helpers wear one for their protection.
- Don’t let anyone pet your animals, as the virus can attach itself to their fur. If your pets are being handled by others, you will need to wash them.
Aside from self-isolation, the best way to slow the spread of the virus is with frequent hand-washing, which must be performed thoroughly, and for at least twenty seconds. If your elderly loved one feels like singing, they can measure the twenty seconds by belting out the chorus to “Jolene” by Dolly Parton, or “Love Shack” by the B-52s.
If your elderly loved ones need a demonstration on how to wash their hands thoroughly, you can forward them the video at the end of this article.
There’s no evidence that coronavirus is transmitted through food , but it can cling to food surfaces and get onto your hands from there. Foods that aren’t typically cooked (such as apples) should be thoroughly cleaned with warm water before being eaten .
As coronavirus infections grew daily across the country, many states introduced strict quarantine measures , and while the laws are necessary to slow the spread of the virus and help protect our elderly, it’s critical to address the crippling loneliness that can arise from social isolation.
Effects of Loneliness
Studies show that socially isolated seniors are twice as likely to die prematurely, with loneliness a bigger threat to the elderly than disease and poverty . American medical professor Steve Cole believes that “loneliness acts as a fertiliser for other diseases,” and can “accelerate the build-up of plaque in arteries, help cancer cells grow and spread, and promote inflammation in the brain leading to Alzheimer’s disease .” Now that your elderly parents are under self-quarantine, thwarting loneliness must be an absolute priority.
Loneliness can be experienced differently depending on the person, but some warning signs include:
- Loss of interest in hobbies
- Loss of appetite
- Poor sleep, including insomnia
- Poor hygiene
- Loss of self-worth (e.g. anxiety about being a burden, feelings of worthlessness or self-loathing)
- Unexplained or aggravated pain
Social isolation can cause loneliness, but there’s still plenty you can do to help your elderly loved ones.
Call your elderly loved ones more frequently to lift their spirits. We tend to lose friends as we age, so while quarantined, your phone call might be their only social interaction for the day. Video calling is even better, as you will be able to absorb each other’s smiles, laughs, and grimaces. You can use FaceTime, Messenger, Skype, Zoom or whatever is easiest for your parent. If they aren’t familiar with the technology, you will probably need to coach them through the set-up, dipping into your reservoir of patience as you go. If necessary, provide them with a dedicated iPad (or similar), pre-set up and ready to go in a few easy steps.
With personal contact limited or in some cases prohibited, the topics you choose for phone or video conversation become more important. It’s easy to fall into a monotonous small talk routine, forever skirting the boundaries of what we really want to talk about—such as our passionate love of trains; that magical Buenos Aires trip in our early twenties, or the moment we realised that we were in love with the most beautiful person in the world. This is the stuff that makes our souls sing, and to coax it out, we need only ask.
There’s also the charming idea of window visits, where you turn up unexpectedly to your parent’s house and suggest they look out of the window. If you have kids, they might want to make an adorable rainbow-coloured sign which spells “I love my pop.”
If your parent is friendly with their neighbour, you might suggest regular fence chats with them, being sure to maintain the recommended social distance.
Finally, for those able to look after them, a new pet can be a wonderful companion for an elderly person. Pets (especially dogs and cats) reduce mortality rates for seniors by improving their health . You might even consider letting them look after your own pet until quarantine is lifted. While there’s evidence that cats and dogs can contract the virus, there’s none to suggest that the virus can be passed onto humans .
Best Practices for Elderly and Social Isolation
With so many new rules in place, it can be difficult to keep up with them, let alone changing our habits to suit. This might be even harder for the elderly, whose daily routines make them feel safe and confident, and fearful when they’re rudely interrupted. To protect our elderly mums and dads, we must rouse the teacher within us and help them develop new routines that are appropriate for their circumstances .
Staying At Home
By far the most important behaviour for elderly people is to stay at home, and only leave for essential services like food shopping, medical matters, or exercise. Our elderly have a tendency to go shopping more frequently than required, as a way to interact with people and break up their day. Given that shops, pharmacies and medical practices are high risk areas for catching coronavirus, it is critical that they visit them as infrequently as possible.
If you’re able to, you might consider grocery shopping for them, dropping it at their door before leaving with a wave of your proverbial delivery hat.
Physical touch reduces stress, pain, and strengthens our immune system , a bitter fact given how important our immune systems are at the moment. For seniors who shower their grandkids with hugs and kisses, this will be a struggle, but they must recognise how dangerous social contact is for them, the lack of which can be stockpiled until the quarantine is over, and joyfully repaid in a frenzy of pent-up love.
If you are outside, try to maintain a distance of 1.5m from people, and avoid the “slipstream” of runners and cyclists, to prevent passing through potential droplet clouds that contain the virus. If you’re inside, the recommended distance is increased to 2m, due to the lack of airflow.
Lifts can be tricky too, with many of them too small to maintain the appropriate distance. It’s safer to go into lifts one at a time.
Elderly people can have a tendency for courageous stoicism, keeping their troubles to themselves because they don’t want to bother anyone. With a deadly virus swarming the world, this attitude is dangerous. We must know if our elderly loved ones have any of the key coronavirus symptoms such as a fever, cough, or shortness of breath , despite the worry that it causes us. To keep them safe, we need to highlight how important this is, repeatedly if necessary.
Make A Plan
If your elderly loved one lives on their own and starts to experience coronavirus symptoms, they’ll need a solid plan of action, which covers the following:
- Who to call for help, with at least two people listed.
- Their doctor’s contact information, so they can call and discuss their concerns.
- What they shouldn’t do, such as going to the GP or hospital with mild symptoms, and potentially spreading the virus.
- Knowing when to call an ambulance, e.g. if they have difficulty breathing.
Our minds and bodies get weaker unless we exercise them, degrading faster with age. With our elderly parents isolated, it’s easy for them to fall into lazy habits, making it even more important to encourage them to keep their minds and bodies sharp.
Exercises that are suitable for our elderly mums and dads during home quarantine include :
- Yoga, pilates, or simple stretches.
- Chair squats.
- Wall push-ups.
- Toe stands.
- Walking (social distance is critical).
For information on some of these exercises, check out the “useful links” section at the end of the article.
It can take a lockdown to appreciate how much joy we get from being outside. But there are still plenty of engaging indoor activities to keep us and our elderly parents entertained.
How To Stay Entertained
Your elderly loved ones can entertain themselves with the following:
- Looking through old photos. With a video call, this can be turned into a valuable social activity.
- Listening to podcasts.
- Learning a new instrument, or picking up an old one.
- Painting something beautiful (or horrendous, depending on skill).
- Discovering new music on Spotify.
- Nintendo Wii (great for mobility too).
- Trying a free online course, to learn something new.
- Starting an indoor herb garden.
- Trying a new book genre.
Activities that can stimulate the minds of the elderly include:
- Reading books, magazines, or articles online.
- Word games such as scrabble, crosswords, word search, or hangman.
- Jigsaw puzzles.
- Card games such as poker, solitaire, or Go Fish.
- Memory challenges.
- Strategy games like chess or checkers.
- Trivia games.
- Writing a memoir, or even an autobiography.
Many of these games can also be played online with friends — a social factor that encourages connection and companionship.
Entertainment Through Technology
Technology improves the quality of life of elderly people , but can be challenging for them. Lack of instruction, doubt, and cost can create barriers that prevent the elderly from getting much-needed joy from technology , whether it’s nattering with their friends on video chat, trawling through family photos on Facebook, or stealing their friend’s queen in an online game of chess. To take advantage of technology during the pandemic, we can chat with them about things they might want to do, help them get set up, and show them how to fix problems along the way.
Who doesn’t love receiving presents? A care package is a wonderful way to express your love to an elderly relative, strengthening your connection to them. You might include little things to keep them entertained, some of their favourite decadent foods, or a note that tells how much you miss and appreciate them.
Elderly and self isolation precautions can cause a great deal of struggle, but help is at hand with the following services:
- Help at Home: a nationwide program to help with activities such as shopping, cooking, personal care, and more.
- Hire a temporary carer, on Find a Carer or Care Seekers.
- Home Assist Secure: a program to get help with home maintenance.
For information on these services, check out the “useful links” section at the end of the article.
- How to wash your hands
- 5 Easy Strength Training Exercises for Seniors
- 6 Easy and Safe Exercises for Seniors
- Home Assist Secure
- Help at Home
- Find a Carer
- Ali Seyfzadeh, Mansoor Haghighatian, Aliasghar Mohajerani, 2019, Social Isolation in the Elderly: The Neglected Issue, Iran J Public Health, 6th April 2020
- 2019, Social isolation, loneliness in older people pose health risks, U.S Department of Health & Human Services
- Clifford Singer, 2018, Health Effects of Social Isolation and Loneliness, Ageing Life Care Association
- 2019, What you need to know about coronavirus (COVID-19), Australian Department of Health
- 2019, Good hygiene for coronavirus (COVID-19), Australian Department of Health
- 2020, Novel Coronavirus and Food Safety, Food Standards Australia, New Zealand
- Tara McKelvey, 2020, When elderly parents want to carry on socialising, BBC
- Zoe Roupa, Marios Νikas, Εlena Gerasimou, Vasiliki Zafeiri, Lamprini Giasyrani, Eunomia Κazitori, Pinelopi Sotiropoulou, The use of technology by the elderly | Insight Medical Publishing, Health Science Journal
- Eleftheria Vaportzis, Maria Giatsi Clausen, Alan J. Gow, 2017, Older Adults Perceptions of Technology and Barriers to Interacting with Tablet Computers: A Focus Group Study, NCBI
- Gabby Landsverk, 2020, How to safely clean produce to prevent the coronavirus, Insider
- Matilda Boseley, Christopher Knaus, 2020, Australia’s strict new coronavirus social distancing rules explained: state by state guidelines, The Guardian
- 2018, 5 Easy Strength Training Exercises for Seniors, Captel
- Dorothee Grüner, How important is physical contact to health?, DW
- Smriti Mallapaty, 2020, Cats Can Get Coronavirus, Study Suggests–But Pet Owners Need Not Panic, Scientific American