Keeping older adults safe and connected

Sarah Dyer is BC Healthy Communities’ Community Well-being Specialist. 

As we navigate uncharted territory and attempt to keep up with new information on COVID-19 daily, we are constantly looking to determine our next wise actions to keep older adults safe and connected. It’s hard to know what to do from a public health, planning or even individual perspective, but there are some things we can be doing right now.

Follow public health guidelines. Older adults and people with preexisting medical conditions are most at risk and are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, but there are still a lot of unknowns. Maintaining a healthy physical distance (at least one metre if neither person is showing symptoms, and avoiding contact altogether if a person has flu-like symptoms) and continuing to practice 20-second hand washing is a must, as is getting information from credible sources such as the World Health Organization or the Public Health Agency of Canada. Facts minimize fear; this goes for you as an individual, as well as if you are part of a local government.

Stay connected to the older adults in our lives and around us to fight loneliness and stress. The B.C. Seniors Advocate has called on all British Columbians to reach out and connect with their older adult friends, family, and those in their communities, to check in to see if there is anything that they need even if it’s a simple phone call to talk and connect. While older adults do need to be a safe distance from others because of their susceptibility to COVID-19, the possible resulting loneliness is concerning for a group that is at a much higher risk for social isolation and its poor health outcomes. Many organizations are sharing how best to keep community connectedness strong. Let’s not let a loneliness epidemic follow in the wake of COVID-19.

Be aware that older adults are not a homogenous group. Not every elder is in the same position. Many single older adults are preparing to be alone in their homes for an extended period of time, but some are comfortable with—and have access to—technology to stay informed and connected and some are not. Others are planning to wait it out with other older friends. However, many folks regularly depend on home aides to assist, and may feel especially vulnerable if caregivers fall ill. For people living in retirement homes, they may be coming to terms with the fact that facilities have necessarily started closing their doors to visitors to protect the health of residents. Responses to the epidemic are also different in urban centres and rural communities.

Use encouraging language. We’ve explored the terminology of social isolation measures in other recent posts, and the conversation is still evolving. Organizations such as Upstream in Ontario have used encouraging language such as “healthy spacing” and describe this combined with handwashing as “an act of social cohesion to prevent viral spread.” Framing public health guidelines as altruistic acts of social cohesion can help us as community members have more consideration for the older adults around us, and might also help us all maintain positive perspective and lessen potential trauma.

Include an older adult perspective in COVID-19 and other emergency planning. We suggest that global, national and provincial COVID-19 planning messaging explicitly reflect the older adult perspective. There are concerns that nursing homes, as well as other places where people live in close proximity, may act as incubators in the spread of the virus in high-income countries and around the world. Keeping older adults and their built and social environments at the forefront of messaging could help to build public awareness as our health systems continue to be taxed. This perspective is also something we need to take forward with us when we are on the other side of this pandemic, even as we reflect on how external forces such as climate change disproportionately impact our elders when coupled with isolation and lack of social support.

In summary, it’s critical to reduce older adults’ risk of exposure to the COVID-19 virus through public health guidelines. At the same time, it’s also vital to be aware of the fact that social isolation has a highly negative impact on the health of older adults specifically, and that safely connecting with older adults during this time can be key to their well-being. How we talk about what is going on and the language we use has an impact, and using encouraging language could also make a difference in improving well-being. Putting the older adult perspective at the forefront of messaging for COVID-19 planning can lead to an increased awareness of the possible heightened isolation of older adults and encourage connection by those at lower risk.

Author Credit: Sarah Dyer

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