How can we look after older people when coronavirus has made it impossible to see them?

Hard to be apart.
Hard to be apart.
Image: Reuters/David Ryder
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For anyone with older relatives or friends—which includes everyone with parents or grandparents over about 65—and especially those who take a caregiving role in an older person’s life, coronavirus presents a terrible quandary. How do we make sure the older people we love are ok, while at the same time staying away so we don’t put them at risk? When we know our loved ones are vulnerable to loneliness as well as the disease, how do we balance their need for us with the sudden imperative of isolation?

A broken bond

In many ways, the intergenerational bond of love that exists between grown children and parents, and between kids and grandparents, is what makes us who we are.

“Human evolution uniquely involved both an extended childhood—twice as long as our closest primate relatives—and an extended period of old age from 50-70ish, particularly including post-menopausal grandmothers, who are very rare among animal species,” wrote Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, California, in an email. “These older people both could provide help and resources for our especially helpless children in the period where they are learning the most and pass on cultural knowledge—a particularly important feature of human cognition.”

Working parents across cultures are often reliant on their own parents to supplement childcare, but that’s just the latest manifestation of our species’ reliance on its elders.

Added to the yearning and practical need we have for our elders is the real fear that, in our globalized and tech-driven world, older people are increasingly isolated anyway. It’s no wonder so many of us are feeling bereft, guilty, and afraid both for our older loved ones, and for ourselves. And no wonder, too, that so many older people are feeling anxious.

The phone

The advice, however, is clear. If at all possible, older people—who are at a higher risk of suffering complications and dying from coronavirus—should keep contact with others to an absolute minimum. Ideally, they should stay at home, not receive visitors, get groceries and medicines delivered, and go outside for no reason other that solitary exercise or medical necessity. (Guidelines vary slightly by country; this is specifically the UK’s advice for those over 70.)

Many relationships have therefore transferred exclusively to voice calls and a range of video chat options which can be especially good for kids connecting with older people, or for those with dementia-related issues. (Though bad, in my own experience, for people who struggle to hear, or to master new technologies quickly.)

Marc Freedman, founder and CEO of Encore.org, a nonprofit working to bridge generational divides, said that amid all the ideas for online connection he suggests to older people, when it comes to staying in touch, calling is a brilliant substitute for meeting in person—as anyone who lives far away from their older loved ones will already know. That could be a regular, long call—which has suddenly become easier to arrange, since so many social plans have been cancelled—or a very regular short check-in. (An informal survey of Quartz staff revealed that many people are now calling their parents every day, and that the nature of conversations is changing as a result—shifting, perhaps, from top-level updates on work or family to the kind of chit-chat more usual in the relationships of people who live together or see each other all the time, a change that feels both ironic and sweet.)

Grandparents are also being enlisted to teach kids skills via video chat, an arrangement that maintains connection while also helping out parents, many of whom now have kids home all day since schools and daycares have closed. Sanam Vakil, deputy director and senior research fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at London’s Chatham House, is having her daughters, who are 8 and 10, spend an hour a day with each of their grandmothers. One grandmother, who is Iranian and based in the US, will instruct them in art and Persian. The other, based in Italy, is teaching Italian.

Other ways to connect

Freedman also encourages older people stuck at home to find other ways of being in touch with communities. In times of isolation this is of course much tougher, since neighborly chats and physical hangouts are impossible.

Encore has compiled a list of volunteering opportunities that can be both trained for and fulfilled online, and because the organization’s remit is about intergenerational mixing, most of them are focused on bringing young and old together. Create the Good offers a range of volunteering opportunities for American seniors, while Careervillage displays questions from young people which professionals or retirees can then answer. Encore has a full US-focused list on its blog.

Alongside volunteering, “There are lots of online exercise and meditation classes, webinars, discussion groups, book talks, and free classes available online,” Freedman said. Older people might need help navigating their way to the resources that are available for their particular area or interest, much of which can be done remotely.

Freedman also pointed out that for the first time vast numbers of younger people are, because of the current restrictions in place on movement and socializing, beginning to understand the isolation which many of their elders face all the time. And that itself could be transformative.

“We’re all developing a deeper empathy for those who are isolated most of the time. Suddenly, many millions of us are being forced to experience the kind of loneliness that has been reserved for much smaller numbers,” he said. “When all of this is over, our experiences with social distancing should bolster appreciation for face-to-face connection. We’ll see that virtual connection is better than nothing but no substitute for the real thing.”

Strange times

Sometimes, it will be impossible to transition overnight from seeing an older person to not seeing them—for example, if you have hitherto been the carer who took charge of daily needs like dressing, bathing, and eating. If it’s impossible not to see a vulnerable person, there is advice on how to keep them safe from the guidelines on living with vulnerable people.

If your relationship has to take place at a distance, however, there are other small ways to try and add moments of joy.

Letters, cards, books and articles can all be sent easily by post. Several companies now offer flower delivery services of blooms in bud, that fit though a letterbox. Physical photographs can also be posted, as well as photos and videos shared online—or try a smart photoscreen to which other family members can also upload.

For anyone caring for an older person with dementia, things are more complicated. Here are some ideas on how to handle the sudden distance.