Coronavirus pandemic: How to help senior citizens

Tips to help seniors self-isolating at home — and ways to donate your time, money and resources.
Image: Helping seniors
There are many organizations working to provide food for seniors right now, including Meals on Wheels and local food banks. Alex Potemkin / Getty Images
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By Nicole Spector

The coronavirus can be lethal to anyone who catches it, but seniors are especially at risk if infected.

Eight out of 10 deaths from COVID-19 have been from those age 65 or older,” says Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, a family physician in Phoenix, Arizona. “The reason why is because our immune system is less effective at fighting infections as we get older. Also, having multiple other chronic diseases can complicate this virus.”

As Dr. Ria Paul, geriatrician at Stanford Health Care underscores, the best thing seniors can do right now is to hunker down in self-isolation and practice social distancing, but we must recognize that this is a lot to ask. “I have patients who haven’t left their home at all in six weeks,” says Paul. “I applaud them for that, but living in lockdown mode can be challenging.”

Fortunately, there are steps that younger people can take to help seniors cope right now, just as there are ways we can serve elderly communities at large, including nursing homes which have been dubbed “ground zero” for the pandemic as COVID-19-related death rates soar.

Here’s what experts recommend:

Limit your own risk to infection and spreading

First and foremost, Dr. Paul says we must also practice self-isolation and social distancing. We shouldn’t be in any physical contact with seniors at this time unless we’re caregivers, in which case we need to treat our own bodies as though they’re an extension of the senior’s we’re caring for.

“It's a paradigm,” says Paul. “If you’re a caregiver for a senior, you have to be responsible for yourself and do everything you can to prevent [contracting] and transmitting the virus. This is the most important thing.”

Take the time to teach seniors how to get better at technology

“When I call my patients, they’re so happy to hear my voice,” says Paul. “They ask me how I am doing and they want to prolong the conversation. I will ask them, ‘Do you have a smartphone?’ And many of them do, but haven’t used FaceTime before. Once I tell them about it, they are surprised by how easy it is. A big thing we can do as a community is to help seniors stay connected digitally. Now is a time to practice social distancing but [also a time to discourage] social isolation by helping seniors become better at technology.”

Make sure seniors are correctly informed and up to date about COVID-19

"Like all people, seniors are vulnerable to seeing and believing misinformation about COVID-19 on the internet and their social media feeds,” says Valerie Earnshaw, a social psychologist and assistant professor of human development and education at the University of Delaware. “We know that people who believe more misinformation are less likely to follow public health recommendations to protect themselves and others from this virus.”

Earnshaw, who co-authored a new paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association on the need to combat COVID-19 misinformation, finds that “luckily, even people who believe misinformation about COVID-19 trust information about COVID-19 from their doctors.” So, if your elderly loved one isn’t taking the coronavirus seriously, have their doctor step in. “Many doctors and other healthcare professionals are taking time to talk with people who are at greater risk of COVID-19 complications to address their concerns — and it's just one more thing for us all to be grateful to them for during this time."

Be the person they can vent to — this is an incredibly hard time for them

Seniors not only worry about their own lives, they’re concerned about their peers, and many have already lost friends to COVID-19. Encourage them to open up about their feelings.

“Mind and body go hand in hand,” says Paul. “If our patients are depressed, they may stop eating or drinking and then the physical health part goes in a downward spiral.”

Elizabeth St. John, a licensed clinical social worker at Stanford Health Care who often works with Dr. Paul, adds that seniors need to talk to people who “can just listen and validate their feelings. Be the person who will bear witness to their sadness, stress and anxiety and who will let them reminisce because this is a really sad time.”

Remember that you needn’t take on the position of being their emotional support system all by yourself (again, keep yourself healthy first!). Enlist other family and friends to check in, too. “My patients love when they hear from someone they haven’t heard from in a while,” says Paul, who adds that organizing virtual group hangouts is also important right now, particularly if the senior in your life is used to attending church or other social gatherings.

Be the person who will bear witness to their sadness, stress and anxiety and who will let them reminisce because this is a really sad time.

Elizabeth St. John

Ask nursing homes how you can help — many need PPE

In addition to providing support to the seniors in our immediate circles, we can also help the senior community at large. One way to do this is by helping out nursing homes, which you can easily do by picking up the phone and calling those in your area. They will likely discourage any hands-on volunteering right now, but there are surely other ways you can help by say, donating personal protective equipment (PPE) or supplying meals.

Ask local senior centers how you can help

“If people want to get more involved, call your local senior center and ask, ‘How can I help during this crisis?’’ says St. John. “Senior centers are planning outreach, grocery delivery and other connections to community resources. Some have creative volunteer programs like friendship lines where you can call seniors you don’t even know.”

Support food banks and programs like ‘Meals on Wheels’

“This pandemic has put the elderly, a group that was already isolated and vulnerable, at even greater risk for hunger,” says Beth Shapiro, executive director of Citymeals on Wheels. “The work of Citymeals, and other meals on wheels programs across the country, is crucial to ensure a lifeline for older people during these times. The demand for food among seniors is increasing with each passing week, so supporting local hunger organizations is essential.”

In response to the Coronavirus outbreak, CityMeals on Wheels is serving 450,000 meals to some 18,000 elderly New Yorkers. You can donate here. Meals on Wheels also has a COVID-19 response fund, which you can donate to here as does FeedingAmerica, which helps tackle food insecurity felt by all ages.

There are many more organizations working to provide for seniors right now, including local food banks. Browsing Charity Navigator is a great way to find legitimate nonprofits in virtually every category.

Your senior loved one may qualify for more assistance — do your homework

Additionally, if you’re helping a senior family member navigate their nutritional needs on a tight budget, make sure that they’re receiving all benefits they’re eligible for.

The National Council on Aging has an abundance of information on various senior benefit programs including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides electronic cards that enable low-income seniors to buy select food at participating stores.

Donate blood — supply is low

If donating money isn’t feasible right now, or if you want to go the extra step in being of service, donating blood is one of the most charitable acts you can do.

Kirsten Hokeness, an immunology expert and professor and chair of the department of science and technology at Bryant University notes that blood supplies in hospitals are low, and by donating, you help seniors who “are not only at risk for COVID-19, but other conditions. Having a stocked blood supply will be beneficial to all.”

You can schedule appointments in your area with The American Red Cross.

If caring for someone with dementia, make sure you have support

St. John points out that if you’re caring for someone with dementia right now, you are dealing with an extremely challenging situation. Don’t slack on getting yourself the support you need to handle it.

“It’s so hard right now, especially if you had caregivers coming before and now they’re not,” says St. John. “I recommend that people get in touch with the Alzheimer's Association. They have a 24/7 hotline: 1-800-272-3900. They’ve put together amazing online support groups as well as online training to help caregivers deal with behaviors of dementia. As a caregiver, you’re in a partnership with the senior, so you need support too.”