9 Tips for Talking to Older Adults About Coronavirus


Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and National Master Guardian Emeritus

Information during a pandemic is constantly shifting as scientists and leaders try to gain an understanding of the viruses that cause such drastic shifts in our daily lives. Many people find themselves struggling to adapt to a new normal with restrictions, responsibilities, and social protocols.

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People of all ages are struggling with the difficulty of understanding and complying with safety and social recommendations. With the virus that causes COVID-19, people who are immunocompromised and older adults are at higher risk of complications and being hospitalized if they contract it. 

Talking to an older adult about the coronavirus presents challenges, but with the right attitude and approach, you can help to keep someone safer and happier.

1. What Is the Coronavirus?

There are some established places to get information on the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 like the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. A coronavirus is an organism with crown-like spikes that can cause a host of respiratory illnesses, including the common cold and the illness known as COVID-19.

As a result, older adults are at particular risk. Many of them have underlying medical conditions that make it harder to fight the virus and can lead to more serious complications. If you are speaking to an older adult, it is important to be informed so you can give accurate information that can be used to help them.

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2. Safety Recommendations

It is important to understand the current safety recommendations so you can be confident when talking with older adults about the coronavirus.

Different states have varying stay-at-home orders, but on the whole, it is recommended that people minimize their outings to emergencies and grocery shopping. Other recommendations include maintaining a minimum of six feet of distance from another person, washing hands frequently, and wearing face masks, all of which are helping to slow the spread of the disease.

Most senior living communities across the country have some restrictions in place. These may include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Orders to quarantine in place for 14 days if you leave the building for any reason.
  • Elimination or reduction in group activities.
  • Transportation only to emergency medical appointments. 
  • Visitors from the family are not allowed. Any healthcare personnel must undergo a screening before seeing a patient.
  • Dining rooms are closed and meals are delivered to apartments.

Older adults living in these group settings are at increased risk because of the close proximity of scores of other people. In addition, older people are more likely to be frail and have underlying medical problems. There have been news reports of major outbreaks in nursing homes across the United States. 

These current stay-at-home restrictions may lead to significant isolation and loneliness. It can be very stressful for older adults not to be allowed to see children, grandchildren, and friends. In senior communities, day-long activities are a normal part of daily life and many people rely on these activities for stimulation and socialization.

3. Source of Information

One of the challenges you may face when you speak with an older adult about the coronavirus is determining where they are getting their information.

For younger people, up-to-date news from many sources is now available 24 hours a day through social media, but may not always be the same or consistently reliable. For many older adults, they may get their news from friends posting on Facebook, a newspaper, or one TV cable station. Knowing this will help you in your approach. The older adult you are talking to may not have the most accurate or current information.

4. Pick the Messenger and the Message

It seems as though there is always one person in the family that an older adult will listen to better. Pick that person for the best chance at success. 

For older adults that are in quarantine, think about what method will work best in talking about safety concerns. Consider email, video, or group phone conversations. Think about what you are trying to accomplish. The goal is to convince an older adult of the seriousness of this and the increased risks for complications. Another goal may be reinforcing the need to follow safety precautions. 

For someone with dementia, this can be very difficult. Memory loss presents challenges, but one way to help is to print simple safety guidelines on a poster board and place it in an older adult’s room. 

If loneliness and depression are a concern, think about ways to ease the stress and isolation. You might try suggesting using technology to stay connected through social media platforms like Facebook, online video chats, or email. Going back to old fashion regular letter writing might lift someone’s spirits.

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5. Ask Questions

One of the best ways to engage someone without triggering a defensive reaction is to ask questions. This also gives you a very good idea of someone’s level of understanding of the virus and the accuracy of the information they have. It also allows an older person to express their feelings and worries.

Some suggestions for questions to ask:

  • “What are your biggest concerns about the coronavirus?”
  • “What is your understanding of the current safety recommendations and restrictions?”
  • “How can we support you as a family?”
  • “What is your biggest challenge in following safety restrictions?”

Once you have the answers to these questions, you can direct your advice and concerns in a meaningful way.

6. Explain Risks

Without sounding panicked, explaining the risks of coronavirus is important. Older adults may have misconceptions about the level of risk and what they can do to minimize that risk.

Let them know that the virus is very contagious and can be passed from person to person via cough or sneeze. Underlying health conditions can make an older adult even more vulnerable to complications. The CDC reports that older adults are disproportionately more likely to die from the virus.

If anyone with COVID-19 is hospitalized, there are reports that these patients are isolated and are not allowed to have visitors. Being sick alone is a devastating experience and one we as a society are not used to coping with. 

7. Offer Solutions

Once you have had an open and thoughtful discussion about the coronavirus, you can address an older adult’s concerns. Acknowledging the consequences of social isolation and offering some ideas on how to combat that can go a long way toward reinforcing safety protocols.

Suggest frequent check-ins via phone, email, or video technology. This way you can keep tabs on how someone is dealing with their fears and anxieties. Make sure that your contact is consistent and frequent. 

One advantage of being older is that many people have lived and survived through trying times before. Remind an older adult about those skills of resilience, responsibility, and commitment to a common goal. If they have done it before, they can do it now.

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8. Respect an Older Adult’s Independence

It is sometimes easy to forget that older adults are independent and capable people. Even if they are frail and have medical problems that have impacted their function, they still deserve respect.

No one likes to be talked down to or treated like a charity case. Keep this in mind during your discussions. Try a collaborative and cooperative approach that acknowledges an older person’s independence and respects their decision making.

Listen to an older adult’s fears and anxieties with empathy and understanding. Discounting those feelings can be viewed as being disrespectful and harsh. At a time when everyone is feeling more stressed, it can be easy to be impatient.

9. Know When to Give Up

It can be hard to accept someone’s autonomy by allowing them to make bad decisions. To preserve the relationship, this may be something you need to do. Older adults, just like younger adults, sometimes make decisions that increase their risk of adverse events or refuse help.

In the case of the coronavirus, an older adult may not follow safety protocols despite your best efforts to educate them about the consequences of those decisions. Some suggested things to say might be the following:

  • “I accept your decision even though I don’t think it is in your best interest.”
  • “Let’s agree to disagree and talk about this at a later time.”
  • “Please let me know at any time how you are feeling and I am open to discussing anything you want to talk about.”
  • “I am here to support you throughout this.”

Open Communication and Coping With the Coronavirus

During these difficult times, it is more important than ever to be thoughtful, patient and respectful as you talk with an older adult about the coronavirus. Information during a pandemic can change from day to day, so it is a good idea to remain in contact with your loved one in any case.

By supporting an older adult, you can help them cope with any issues that may arise as a result. Keeping communication open will go a long way towards that effort.

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