(Across caregiving and community, business and intergenerational attitudes, the pandemic and how we respond to it could change us forever. Next Avenue turned to some of our Influencers in Aging, a diverse group of thought leaders, for their insights, counsel and opinions of what could lie ahead — if we choose.)
News stories today are full of articles on how to depend on family support systems for help during the pandemic. These stories range from the serious “What to do with your children if you get sick” to the more mundane “How do I keep from killing my spouse as we try to share an office?”
But what about the older adults who have no spouse or nearby children? I call them “solo agers.”
Solo agers are part of our communities. They live in suburban homes, metropolitan apartments, rural farmhouses and mobile home parks everywhere. Most solo agers are active in their communities and interest groups, devoting their time and energy to civic and nonprofit organizations, food banks, book clubs, gyms and service organizations.
Under normal circumstances, these activities are a necessary and sufficient social outlet for solo agers. Today, these same vibrant, active solo agers are confined to their homes — alone. As a society, I think we have the responsibility of making sure all our members stay connected to the outside world and to one another.
Take Time to Reach Out
If you are a solo ager, reach out to those same people you used to see on a regular basis before the shelter-in-place orders took effect. Use email or the telephone as an initial contact point, then set up virtual face-to-face get-togethers on Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, or whatever app you prefer.
As a society, I think we have the responsibility of making sure all our members stay connected to the outside world and to one another.
If you are not a solo ager, I bet you know someone who is. Reach out and connect to them. If you are sheltering with family members, solo agers may be reluctant to reach out to you, thinking all your time and energy needs to be focused on those in your household.
That’s likely not the case at all, and you can reassure the solo agers in your life that they matter to you by connecting via video technology. Engage them on a regular basis as much as possible.
Create a Buddy System
Going a step beyond those vital connections, what happens if you are a solo ager and you get sick during this pandemic and need help?
Under normal circumstances, when solo agers get sick, they typically call one of their close friends, tell them they need some help and the friend brings groceries or drives them to the doctor. Obviously, that has to be modified during a pandemic. But it doesn’t mean you should abandon that buddy system. Moreover, if you are a solo ager and don’t have a current arrangement like that with a friend, this a good time to initiate one.
In our current situation, even while you are well, it’s important to check in with each other, at least several times a week, and ideally once a day. Make sure you both have all the supplies (ibuprofen or acetaminophen, a thermometer, cough lozenges, etc.) you need to take care of yourself if you do get sick. These can be ordered and delivered to your door by most large pharmacy chains.
Make sure you each have sufficient food in the house, including soups and juices to help you stay hydrated. Build lists of these essentials together and review them often.
If one of you begins to have symptoms of COVID-19 and becomes frightened, step up the contact. Check in with each other several times a day. You should each know the other’s primary physician’s phone number and the number of the emergency room at each other’s nearest hospital.
If your friend begins having trouble breathing or starts running a fever of over 102 degrees, call 911 and send an ambulance to take them to the hospital. You won’t be going along, but you can ensure they are getting the help they need.
Locked Down and Alone
We all need to remember, too, that some solo agers reside in retirement and assisted living communities. These are normally pleasant, congenial places where older adults in their 80s, 90s, and 100s live and receive help from staff with the activities of daily living, as the need arises.
Residents usually eat together, gather in groups to discuss the events of the day, engage in exercise classes or play competitive board games or cards. Many of us have family members who live in these communities.
As I write this, communities for older adults throughout the country are “locked down.” That means the residents are confined to their rooms and no outside visitors are allowed on the premises.These residents are now very much alone. Where once they spent the greater part of their day socializing with other residents or receiving visits from family, now they sit in their rooms and apartments alone.
If you know a resident in a senior community, you would be doing a grand deed (or mitzvah, as we say in Yiddish) to step up your communication with them during this lockdown.
I have a 96-year old cousin who lives in an assisted living community. Her daughter or I used to visit or take her to lunch several times a month. This past month, we have both been calling her every day. Her vision and hearing won’t allow a video connection, so we just use the telephone. Without these calls, the only person she would see or talk to all day is one aide who drops in to help her dress and bathe and another who delivers her meals.
There are hundreds of thousands of our elders in these communities. If you know a resident in a senior community, you would be doing a grand deed (or mitzvah, as we say in Yiddish) to step up your communication with them during this lockdown.
If you don’t have a personal connection to an elder in a senior living community and you would like to serve in this way, I suggest calling one of these communities in your town and letting a staffer there know that you would like to be a contact point for a resident. I think they will be delighted to make the connection and introduction for you. You can take it from there and build your relationship through phone calls — or maybe even video chats — several times a week.
Next Avenue Editors Also Recommend:
- Sara Zeff Geber: Offering Retirement Advice for Solo Agers
- Identifying the Unique Challenges of Solo Agers
- How to Combat Loneliness and Isolation as We Age
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