8 tips for seniors in isolation, and the importance of staying hopeful

Capital Caring Health has offered a handful of tips to stay connected, active and positive in the era of COVID-19.

elderly woman looking outside of window with pink curtain and white sweater
© De Visu / stock.adobe.com

It’s difficult to avoid the reality that many seniors are facing around the world right now. Weeks of separation from their families, the closure of local community centers and even limitations on grocery store visits (if venturing out at all) can take a hard toll.

It is a reality that is quiet and lonesome for many, but one that with the help of others, we can acknowledge, reconfigure and adapt to make it hopeful and positive. 

We spoke with Marcie Fairbanks, director of family services at Capital Caring Health, a hospice and palliative care organization that has served the DMV for over 40 years, to get her tips for seniors in isolation, and those connecting with them too. 

Below, find a list of helpful tips and highlights from our conversation on being mindful, staying active and asking for help when you need it. 

1) Stay Connected

When it comes to staying connected with family, friends and community members at this time, why is it so important for seniors to maintain those connections, especially during COVID-19?

Even prior to the coronavirus, 43% of seniors ages 60 and older reported feeling lonely. So, with physical distancing and all of these safety measures (that are essential) in place, that number of individuals who are feeling very lonely and isolated is a big concern for us, because our well-being is tied with being connected to others. We are social creatures by nature. And so this is a really significant factor, not only for seniors, but for any age group that is needing to be at home in order to ensure safety. As an organization, we’re really trying to prioritize that and encourage people to be intentional about the connections they’re maintaining. What I mean by that is if you have a loved one who you know is at home, then designate a certain time of the day, maybe it’s a 10 a.m. cup of coffee, where you call Grandma and just check on her and see how she’s doing and what’s going on. And it’s something she can look forward to and you can look forward to. 

The phone is wonderful, but seeing somebody just takes it to a whole new level of benefit. People have been very creative with it, maybe not being able to go into Grandma’s house, but they come stand on Grandma’s porch, and they can talk through the door or window. A good one is always doing yard work, so they’re outside and they’re maintaining a safe and social distance, but they’re also being helpful and now Grandma feels loved and cared for. Those small acts of kindness and generosity are what I think really help individuals feel loved and cared for even more, which is so essential.

2) Eat a healthy diet 

There’s a lot of talk about food when it comes to seniors right now, whether it’s getting groceries safely or even enjoying comfort food during these times. What are the best ways to maintain a healthy diet as a senior during COVID-19? 

It’s kind of an individual thing, you know, sometimes people find comfort just in the process of preparing a meal. But everybody has their own ideas on that, and for some it’s not comforting at all and they don’t derive any pleasure whatsoever from it. It’s very individualized. But, we are in spring and we’re starting to have more access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and seeing colorful foods; there’s an aesthetic value to what you’re visually seeing. And that kind of boosts your morale, right? If you have a plate of something very bland without any colors, it doesn’t evoke that same emotion or boost your morale. But it comes down to a primary way to empower ourselves. This is something that we can take control over, even in a pandemic. Being intentional about what you’re eating and making sure that is something that’s going to fuel your body and not cause some other complications, because it’s all junk food or whatever the case might be, it has multiple different values.

When it comes to getting groceries safely, this is a critical takeaway: It is OK to ask for help. I was just on a call yesterday with an 84-year-old woman who lived alone because of this very reason. She’s feeling very isolated and she was saying to me that all of her life, she’s been the one giving to others and she doesn’t know how to ask someone else for help. Trying to connect that individual with whatever supports are available to them is very important. Maybe it’s that they can’t attend a specific church or be in their congregation, but how is that church helping the individuals in the community? There are a ton of resources in communities that are available, even online. Instacart is easily accessible and you can get your food delivered right to your home. The circumstances are community-specific for each individual, but I would encourage anyone needing help to talk to a family member or friend and say, “Look, this is what I need. Can you help me figure out how to get this need addressed?” And sure enough, in their community, there are going to be resources for them.

3) Prioritize sleep

When it comes to sleep, we’re all experiencing differences (and potential challenges), whether it’s altered sleep schedules, weird dreams or other cases. For those who might be having persistent trouble sleeping, what do you suggest? 

It’s a really individualized perspective because it could be, and I’ve experienced this myself, that we’re even wondering what day of the week it is because our sense of time and space is altered, especially if we’re working remotely and our schedule is different. In response, I’ve heard a lot of people say, “I’m staying up much later and I’m taking a nap during the day,” for example. So there are some of those kinds of modifications that we can make that are easy for us to adjust to, and get ourselves on a schedule. I think schedules are very comforting, just to have that predictability is very important. But if it’s persistent long enough, say it’s a persistent corner, worry, fear or anxiety that you’re experiencing and preventing you from sleeping, then it is essential to recognize that you should talk to someone about it, whether that’s reaching out to your community resources, a mental health professional or your health care provider. 

4) Exercise and get some fresh air 

We’ve heard quite a bit about the need for getting out and stretching your legs a bit. How should seniors be approaching exercising safely at this time? 

They definitely need to be mindful regarding their stability on their feet. We certainly don’t want anyone to be taking unnecessary risks. We want exercise to be something that is suited to them and to what kind of medical conditions they are experiencing. For some, it might just be sitting on the back porch and watching the birds in the tree, or opening the window and feeling the wind come through. Whereas for others it might just be walking around the backyard. We truly don’t want anyone taking unnecessary risks. So really making sure there’s knowledge about safety, communicating with family and more. If they’re going on a walk, telling someone what they’re doing is very important, or carrying their cell phone with them if they are in fact going to be taking a walk alone. They need to make sure if there is any kind of concern that they would be able to get the help they need.

Also, research shows spending time outdoors is really closely linked to our emotional health and our feeling of happiness, so in whatever creative and safe way we can do that, I think that’s going to be vitally important. And it’s springtime! What better mood booster than to see the flowers blooming and feeling the nice spring air on our skin?

5) Be mindful.

What benefits can seniors expect to see by bringing in daily meditations or a gentle yoga practice into their everyday lives, and being more mindful?

This is one of the gifts, and I’m going to call it a gift, that is evident in the throws of this pandemic. So many of us prior to COVID-19 felt like we were on this perpetual treadmill, right? And there was no end in sight. Sometimes it was very stressful trying to figure out how you could fit everything in, even wondering how we could add more hours in the day, instead of the obvious solution, which would be to take things away to make life more manageable. The gift with this pandemic is that we are all on pause and we’ve been able to catch our breath a little bit, and think a little bit more about what our priorities are and what is important to us, and being more intentional. That’s what being mindful is all about. 

The basis of mindfulness is being fully present in this moment and being intentional about how we respond to it, and so having this opportunity with this pause is really an opportunity for self-care. That’s something that has been lacking. Self-care isn’t always about going to the gym, it’s about recognizing how you’re feeling that day or acknowledging what you’re worried about. Whether it be a three-minute breathing exercise just to try and create that space where you’re paying attention to the feelings that you’re having, you can honor them and acknowledge them, rather than trying to quickly move past them. There’s a lot of value emotionally, physically and mentally to having those kinds of opportunities as part of our everyday lives.

6) Seek the medical care and help you need

How is Capital Caring Health continuing to care for its patients during COVID-19, and should seniors be accessing telehealth when possible?

Here at Capital Caring Health, we are primarily a hospice organization, but in response to the changes in the world, we have actually created more of an umbrella of services. We still provide those end-of-life services as facilitated by a physician or provider in the last six months of life, as well as palliative services before one might get to that point, but we’ve recently added primary care at-home services. These services are geared toward individuals who are home-bound, where maybe they have a difficult time getting out to go and see a lot of their specialists or providers for some reason, but they’re not end-of-life patients. We’ve created a team approach where there’s a social worker, a nurse and a primary care provider who’s involved in coming into the patient’s home to link them to resources and help manage their condition, and help them reach their goals of care. We’re really trying to be able to offer services to individuals in those earlier stages. This is not yet available in all of our service areas because it’s brand-new this year, but we’re hoping that over time, with interest and need, we’re going to be able to really make that more across the board. And what great timing!

Also, utilize telehealth resources. I mean, it’s an adjustment period where we’re all trying to get used to the idea, and patients and families are also a little unsure. But, it’s just the way we can do things now. There are many that still offer telephone support for those who don’t have the technology, and there are still in-person visits for essential medical care.

7) Don’t grieve alone 

This is a big one. Talk to me about grieving at this time as a senior and what resources they can reach out to if they need them?

I keep trying to educate people that we are all grieving, even if we have not lost a loved one specifically to death, whether that’s from COVID-19 or not. We’re all grieving the loss of life we lead at the beginning of this year. That grief is very real and takes an effect on every aspect of how we’re feeling and how we’re responding to things. There are grief counselors available. They’re training and they’re available through telephone support for individual sessions and Zoom telehealth options, or even virtual support groups, which can meet you where you are regardless of what kind of loss you’re feeling.

You can get connected with a mental health professional, regardless of what your concern is, whether it’s an eating disorder or anxiety, depression or substance abuse. A lot of individuals who had these concerns prior to COVID-19, their concerns have not gone away. It just might be that their connection to support groups or resources is now more scarce.

8) Remember, we’re all in this together

This isn’t necessarily a tip, but more of a reminder. What should readers know about sticking it out, while being “separate but together” during the pandemic?

First, it’s OK not to be OK. I mean, who of us in this pandemic would actually say, “Oh yeah! I’m doing really great!”? We’re all trying to figure this out together, so I think it is important to stress the united nature of this pandemic. Social distancing makes it seem like we’re fragmented, when really we’re unified in a way that we’ve never seen before. We’re all on the same side of the fence trying to navigate this, trying to maintain each other’s health and well-being, and so it’s together that we’re going to be able to get through this.

That’s why it’s really important for us to focus on hope, because it is the key to our success coming out of this. Personally, my hopefulness is derived from the community efforts that everyone is pulling together, trying to meet the needs of not only front line and health care workers, but recognizing the needs of those needing connection and services, and more. Everybody who may not have communicated with one another previously is now extending themselves, so there’s a great sense of altruism and this community spirit that I haven’t seen in quite some time.

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