Providing senior care and maintaining social distancing may seem like incompatible goals. Some services, whether provided by home health aides or by the staff of a senior living facility, need to be provided in person. A certain amount of physical contact — or at least close proximity — is necessary when seniors need assistance bathing, eating, getting dressed, or engaging in other activities of daily living.
Skilled and conscientious care providers understand the need to take precautions that minimize the risk of spreading the coronavirus. Not reporting to work when the provider has a fever, cough, or other symptoms of illness, and staying home until a doctor confirms that the provider is not infected, is a must.
Unfortunately, infected individuals who are pre-symptomatic can still spread the coronavirus. Care providers should protect themselves from acquiring and then unknowingly spreading an infection by avoiding crowds, washing their hands frequently, and wearing personal protective equipment whenever their work requires them to be in contact with a potentially infected population.
When close contact with an elderly patient is unavoidable, providers should protect the patient by wearing a mask at all times and by maintaining a distance of six feet unless closer contact is essential. Regularly cleaning and disinfecting walkers, handrails, medical equipment, and other surfaces an elderly patient might touch is another crucial job duty in the age of COVID-19.
Families should take appropriate action to protect their senior relatives if they observe care providers violating any of these fundamental rules. Of course, family members should follow them, as well.
Social Distancing, Not Social Isolation
Limiting the in-person visitors who have contact with senior family members is an important safeguard against spreading coronavirus. Yet social contact is important for seniors.
According to the National Institute on Aging, research links “social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.”
Loneliness may also be self-reinforcing. Research suggests that people who lose a sense of connection and community begin to feel mistrustful and threatened. Those feelings promote behaviors (such as shunning contact with neighbors) that cause a lonely person to become even more isolated.
Yet research also suggests that living alone and feeling lonely do not necessarily go together. Some seniors who live alone do not feel lonely, while some seniors who are surrounded by other people feel socially isolated. The quality, rather than the frequency, of social contacts may determine whether a senior feels lonely.
Using Technology to Stay Connected
Technology is an obvious way to encourage seniors to stay active with family and friends while maintaining social distancing. Social media allows seniors to keep track of their grandchildren. Video chats are available by using a variety of apps. Group chats on apps like Zoom and Skype allow families to meet without violating the new norm of social distancing.
The market is flooded with free chat and meeting apps. An app is only useful, however, if everyone who wants to meet has the same app. Families will need to agree about the app they all want to use before introducing it to their older relatives.
Some people, regardless of age, are more tech savvy than others. Seniors who do not have one will need to be provided with a tablet, smartphone, or laptop to take advantage of communication technology. Since devices often offer a bewildering array of features that can be intimidating to new users, a simple device with basic smartphone functions might be a good choice.
Seniors may need help downloading and learning how to use messaging apps. Providing “hands on” instruction can be challenging while maintaining social distancing, but a family member who has an identical device or app should be able to walk a senior through set up and operation while staying six feet away.
Using Smartphones to Provide Remote Care
Relatives who equip a senior with a smartphone might want to download an app that seniors can use to get help in an emergency. The simplest apps, like Red Panic Button, can be installed as a home screen widget. A press of the button alerts family members that their relative is in need of emergency assistance.
More sophisticated apps provide additional features, although they often charge a monthly fee. For example, some apps allow a senior to connect with an agent who can offer assistance if the senior feels frightened or lonely. Some apps use the phone’s GPS to notify an agent of the senior’s location, knowledge that helps the agent offer directions it the senior becomes confused while running errands.
Relatives can also access the GPS function on the senior’s smartphone to keep track of the senior’s location. A GPS function is particularly useful when the senior suffers from Alzheimer’s or a similar condition.
Unfortunately, GPS only helps if it is activated and if the senior takes the smartphone when leaving his or her home. When a senior suffers from memory problems, family members should consider GPS trackers that can be affixed to footwear or worn as a bracelet, increasing the likelihood that the senior can be located at all times.
Some homecare aides who no longer visit seniors for fear of spreading the coronavirus are calling their clients to remind them to take their medications or blood pressure. Medication apps for smartphones offer a similar service by keeping track of a senior’s prescriptions and alerting the senior throughout the day when it is time to take a pill.
An app that records blood pressure and makes readings available to caregivers and family members is another useful tool, although the senior will need to learn how to use a wireless blood pressure cuff. Other apps allow caregivers to monitor a senior’s heartrate.
Of course, no technology that depends on a smartphone can work unless the senior keeps the phone charged. A remote battery monitor can alert loved ones that their senior’s smartphone battery is getting low. Calling parents or grandparents to remind them to plug in their chargers is another way to remind them that caring relatives want to stay in touch.