Helping your older parents and relatives deal with self-isolation

April 21, 2020 in Family Caregiving  •  By Miles Varn, MD

Because older people are more at risk for complications from COVID-19, independent and assisted living communities around the U.S. have banned visitors and are encouraging residents to remain within the community and, in some cases, in their apartments as much as possible. Even older people who don’t live in a senior living community may be more isolated than usual, limiting trips outside their home and avoiding contact with friends and family.

While these steps may help reduce the risk of getting ill, isolation can have a significant impact on both physical and mental wellbeing. One study noted that loneliness, a common by-product of social isolation, is associated with an increased risk for a range of health problems, including:

  • Heart disease and stroke
  • Memory problems
  • Progression of Alzheimer’s disease
  • Alcoholism and substance misuse
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Musculoskeletal disorders

Other researchers have found an association between loneliness and higher levels of inflammation in the body, which in turn can increase the risk of chronic health problems, as well as weakened immune systems.

How to help older people maintain a feeling of connection in insolation

There are a number of things you can do to help your older friends and family members feel less lonely and more socially connected:

  • Don’t wait for them to reach out. Depending on how tech savvy they are, you can either video chat or call on the phone every day to check in. Encourage other family members and friends to do the same. You don’t need to have anything important to say. The simple act of talking with others can make a big difference when older relatives and friends are spending most of their days alone.
  • Help them connect with emotional support resources. The Institute on Aging has a confidential hotline that connects isolated, depressed older people with trained volunteers who provide 24-hour emotional support and conduct wellness checks via phone. The phone number of the organization’s Friendship Line is 1-800-971-0016.
  • Find virtual versions of the activities they’re missing. If your family member or friend enjoys being part of a book club but the club is not currently meeting because of COVID-19, there are online book clubs they could try if they’re comfortable using a computer. If they enjoy volunteering in the community, call the organizations they usually work with and find out if they need volunteers to make phone calls on the organization’s behalf.
  • Gather for a virtual meal. Eating alone can be depressing and some older people skip eating when faced with the prospect, which can have a negative impact on their health. Try having a virtual meal with your older family members and friends. If they know how to use video apps like FaceTime, Skype, or Zoom, schedule a breakfast, lunch, dinner where you eat and chat together like you would if you were all at the same table. For those who can’t manage the technology, you can do something similar with a phone call.
  • Help them stay engaged and active. In isolation, older people may spend an excessive amount of time watching or reading the news, which can heighten their anxiety. Or they may simply sit at home and worry. Send them a care package that includes engaging activities that they enjoy, whether it’s a few new books or magazines, a workout DVD, some puzzles, art or craft supplies, or a new cookbook and the ingredients to make a few of the recipes.