During the coronavirus pandemic, older people may be particularly vulnerable. Not only to the virus itself but to loneliness and isolation. Even before the outbreak, loneliness and isolation have been major health concerns for the older population. As we age, our social networks tend to become smaller, and there are also health conditions we may experience that hinder us from being as engaged in society as we once were.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- How to Reach Out to Isolated Grandparents or Other Older Family Members
- How to Reach Out to Isolated Older Neighbors or Community Members
As we socially distance ourselves for safety, the social needs of society and particularly seniors is growing. And the potential effects may be dire. According to one study, 43 percent of adults age 60 and older in the U.S. report feeling lonely. Research also shows that prolonged isolation is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Needless to say, it’s important to check in on your older loved ones, neighbors, and community members. Finding inspiration and different ways to check-in can be hard especially during a time of prolonged distancing, but it’s not impossible.
How to Reach Out to Isolated Grandparents or Other Older Family Members
Our everyday lives are so busy. We don’t get to communicate with our loved ones as often as we’d like, especially with those outside of our immediate family such as our grandparents. With the pandemic, many people have extra time on their hands, thanks to the safety measures of social distancing.
People are no longer tied to a wall, trying to talk to a loved one for more than 30 minutes on a landline. Technology has made it convenient and easy to connect with almost everyone. And others keep popping up overnight.
1. Video chat
Video conferences are no longer for work only. There are many free video-conferencing platforms that allow users to meet online and participate via video and audio means. These applications can be easily installed on your mobile device or home computer/laptop.
Some examples include Zoom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, and UberConference. Other social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram also have video chat functions built into their chat messaging as well.
For those with Apple products, there’s also always FaceTime. You can FaceTime with more than one person at the same time. You are also able to do so with platforms like Skype, which allows you to have up to 50 people on the same video call.
2. Write letters and send cards
With the extra time you have, take some time to sit down and write a good old-fashioned letter or card. Your older loved one will enjoy opening and reading it. In addition, the physical act of writing can be therapeutic. In a time where we can’t physically be with one another, having a means of physical communication may hold more meaning.
Is your loved one located in a different location than you? Consider sending a postcard to see how they’re doing.
3. Pick up the phone
Just hearing someone’s voice can be beneficial in times of loneliness and social distancing. Call your neighbors. Call your grandparents. Find out what’s been going on in their lives.
How they are adapting to life as we know it? How do they feel about this whole situation? Are they practicing safety recommendations? You can also do multi-person phone calls if you want to involve more than one person.
4. Group text
Some people may find group texts to be annoying. But during these times it can actually be a great tool to stay up to date about what your loved ones have been up to and to stay informed about the people in their lives.
Group texts are also not as time-sensitive as many of the other communication options available. This makes it easier to catch up and contribute when you have the time.
5. Virtual game nights
Are there any particular games your grandparent or older family member likes to play? See if there are options to play with them virtually either by an app or computer platform.
Many traditional board games are now available online, like Scrabble or Trivial Pursuit. Playing games like these is a way to communicate in a much more light-hearted fashion during these trying times. It’s also a fun way to stay engaged, get your mind off things, and stay connected to those you love.
How to Reach Out to Isolated Older Neighbors or Community Members
Community members are coming up with many creative ways to reach out to and help neighbors during this difficult time. This is especially important because many older adults live alone and may not be close to family members. They may be without the physical supports that were normally available to help them with errands, appointments, rides, etc.
New possibilities keep popping up every day, but it’s important that we reach out to everyone we can think of in the meantime.
One way to help community members and neighbors is through the app Nextdoor. With this app, you sign up with your address, and it puts you in an online community with your neighbors. You can create posts to keep each other informed about what’s happening in your area. Typically it can update you on crime and safety alerts, local news, events, real estate, etc.
During this pandemic but people are using it as a means to check on vulnerable members of the community. They’ve actually created a “help map” to locate and assist persons in need. And, volunteers who are able to contribute can do so in various ways.
People have been volunteering to help run errands, do shopping, and pick up prescriptions for people. You also may see posts about where you can donate personal protection equipment. One very simple way you can help out on this app is by volunteering to do check-in calls to anyone isolated. Even posting to offer words of encouragement can be more helpful than you may realize.
7. Create a phone tree
Start a neighborhood phone tree. A phone tree starts with any one person selecting three people to call and then encourages them to do the same. These can be as big or as small as you’d like, but the larger the phone tree the larger the impact.
Start with a few people you know and ask them if they’d like to be involved and if they know anyone to add to the list. As you go, ask the call recipients the same. Besides just having people reach out to the vulnerable members of your community, it also encourages communication amongst isolated individuals.
There was recently a news story about an older woman who dialed the wrong number and ended up talking to another isolated senior for quite some time. They even got each others’ numbers to check in again during this time. Think about facilitating these kinds of relationships and pair up individuals with similar hobbies or interests, or those that live close to one another.
8. Contact local neighborhood or senior organizations
Reach out to local organizations serving older persons. These organizations are often hubs of information, referrals, and volunteer opportunities. Many senior centers, libraries, and community centers are moving to online programming.
Perhaps there is a way you can help assist or offer a program virtually. You could help check in on older adults by email or phone. You may even be able to help with rides, grocery shopping, or prescriptions if you have been quarantining and follow safety protocols. Another option may be to help older individuals order things online.
9. Social media
Join the Facebook groups of the community or neighborhood you live in. During this time, people are using these groups similar to Nextdoor (mentioned above).
People are posting words of wisdom, asking how they can help out, and organizing neighborhood food dropoffs. They are posting about donations and neighborhood updates such as trash removal and parking.
These platforms can also be a way to post about the trials and tribulations we encounter. In addition, with social media, you can remain in contact with others, especially those who may have contracted COVID-19 or passed away as a result.
10. Window pens and chalk
Have you seen pictures of people using window pens to play tic tac toe? Or doing something similar with chalk? These options offer an added bonus of creativity. You can write inspiring messages, draw pictures, and create unique designs. Chalk is great for writing in streets and driveways and window pens are great for windows, glass doors, and mirrors. Both are pretty easy to clean up as well — just add water.
Maybe you can write something new each day. Write a special quote or wish people a happy Monday. The possibilities are quite endless and give you the option to be creative and have fun.
Reaching Out During Quarantine to Help Your Community
While we can’t be together in-person at the moment, it's important that we do our best to stay connected in other ways. It’s clear that many people are using their creativity to help their neighbors and loved ones during this pandemic.
There are also others who are making strides to improve the lives of those who may be most vulnerable. Many promising initiatives are already underway but will need our ongoing energy, commitment, and support to have the greatest impact.
- AARP. How to Fight the Social Isolation of Coronavirus. www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-2020/coronavirus-social-isolation-loneliness.html
- Center for Disease Control and Protection. Mental Health and Coping During Covid-19. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html
- Social disconnectedness, perceived isolation, and health among older adults. (2009). Journal of health and social behavior, 50(1), 31–48. Cornwell, E. Y., & Waite, L. J. (2009).
- Health Effects of Social Isolation and Loneliness. Clifford Singer. www.aginglifecarejournal.org/health-effects-of-social-isolation-and-loneliness/