How can we encourage the elderly during this time? How can we help them understand that we don’t want to lose them and that, although it’s hard for them, we didn’t abandon them. I have an elderly mother and, honestly, it would help me a lot. Can you write for me?
If she were still alive, my mother would be extremely worried about the new reality of COVID-19, which the media would have unreservedly presented to her. But she would also try to protect herself. She became hypervigilant in her last few years of life, when the disease limited her physical strength. She had a 5-litre bottle of water at home, which she prepared for a supposed huge earthquake that our city of Bucharest would not have been able to withstand, of which the news media had forewarned us of with questionable certainty. She would send me information she had found on the internet and tell me, “Check it from three sources and tell me if it’s true.” But I knew that she’d assimilate, without any filter, some of the toxic information on Facebook anyway. My mother watched “that channel” on TV and, although she never discussed politics, she nurtured the despair that inevitably sets in when the mess of political agendas enters your home every night.
My mother would have told me to stay inside and not leave the house to ramble on the street. I wouldn’t have gone out anyway, but she would have been equally distrustful. She would’ve sent me news that appeared in the newsfeed about the fact that the virus was created in the laboratory and about how garlic and drinking water every 15 minutes could help us. She would then send me funny COVID-19 memes and probably a picture of a monkey in lockdown at home, which she would’ve said was me.
In a sense, she was an archetype of many other mothers forced to face the counter-instinctual need that, in the whirlwind of technology, they be the ones protected by their children. With my heart to my mother’s needs and my mind to the many indications offered by specialists for this acute period, I’ve gathered several extremely useful recommendations to help our seniors.
Work (together) on the lifestyle
Like my mother, our seniors often feel older than they really are. There are several things that make them believe this, one of them being the bag full of medicines they take monthly with the prescription from the family physician. Many suffer from chronic heart disease, have poor blood circulation, diabetes…“What do you expect? I’m old!”, they say. In the waiting room at their doctor’s practice, no one taught them that lifestyle changes could have reduced their risk of disease (and associated medicines) from the doctor’s list.
But we could teach them, with a lot of love, a lot of patience and optimism, that they could put less salt in their food, eat at least one serving of fruit a day, try that crazy müsli thing that they say has a lot of fiber. In places where the lockdown has been lifted, we could plan to go out for a walk together, or if the lockdown is still enforced, we could encourage them to stay active through the simplest of exercises, such as two or three criss crossings with their hands and legs, as long as their back allows it, sitting in bed or even sitting on a chair. If they are more lively, we can send them YouTube videos with routines they could very well do at home, or we could call them when there are gymnastics shows on a TV channel (usually on cable).
Teach them how to take advantage of the internet, without the internet taking advantage of them
The sudden technological transformations, which even young people are struggling to cope with, send the senior the ungrateful message that they are no longer welcome here. In the United States, young people have moved from Facebook to Instagram and TikTok, fleeing the parent and grandparent invasion of the Zuckerberg network. But in developing countries, many seniors have smartphones they don’t know how to use. Those who still have the opportunity to surf the web feel inadequate. Step by step, they start discovering the joy of seeing their thoughts mirrored in quotes from engagement-baiting pages in what they believe to be a safe space, becoming more and more familiar with the platform’s use with each sharing of a picture or funny video. For them, even more than for young people (unknowingly) driven by algorithms, the internet is a little soap bubble. They don’t make sudden movements so as not to break it, but they also don’t enjoy everything the internet has to offer.
The younger ones, who complain their grandparents spam them with useless nonsense on WhatsApp, could make a habit out of sending their grandparents something valuable to read and see every day. An optimistic article, an inspiring story, an artistic video, a song, a beautiful photo, positive news coming out of the coronavirus pandemic. Something that would show them there are still beautiful things in the world they knew nothing about, but oh! how good it is that they have grandchildren to share them!
The younger ones, who complain their grandparents spam them with useless nonsense on WhatsApp, could make a habit out of sending their grandparents something valuable to read and see every day.
Their children can open and expand seniors’ horizon with novelties explained in a simple language that the senior can understand. That would stimulate their thinking and project it on something more than nostalgia for a past that seems better than the present because it has already been conquered.
Show them you’re here
Many older people take refuge in the past because it feels more familiar to them than the present, which seems full of new ingredients, sometimes perceived as threatening (“I’d better not read anything than see only fake news.”).
But the elderly can also take refuge in the past because that is the time when, due to their personal vigour, they could fulfil some needs that remain unfulfilled today. For example, the need to have friends of the same age, with similar interests, with similar plans, problems and dreams. As they get older, life separates them from old friends: some move, others change, develop other interests and affinities, some get sick, and maybe even die. Slowly, the social world of the elderly begins to reduce itself to family members and the past they share.
To the youngest, this attitude seems like a hopeless resignation, one that puts too much pressure on them. But the same attitude of the elderly can be seen as a realistic regrouping of resources, as an assessment of the damage that life has caused and a focus on what is certain: living loved ones and beautiful memories. In these two places we can meet our elderly, even if only by phone.
We could accept the occasional trip in the past, reminiscing beautiful moments together with our elders, while reassuring them that we will put our imagination to work and build other pleasant moments in the post-COVID-19 future.
We could even make plans together, smaller or bolder, without forcing an optimism that we, ourselves, do not believe. Or we can plainly dream together.
We can ask them for advice on issues we face today and which they may have faced in the past. (The term “senior” also implies “senior experience” in the field of life.)
We can accept and even thank them for the excessive care they show for us, while being aware that, most probably, no one else will ever be as interested as a mother or grandmother in what we ate for lunch or the way we take care of ourselves in general.
We can create small shared habits, like setting a certain time to talk on the phone about how we spent our day. Or a certain time to check on one another on Skype or WhatsApp and do something together (exercise, play an online game, browse holiday photos together, watch TV together and comment live on what we see, or continuing the conversation while cooking together).
We can study together on the internet; we can pray together over the phone. We can talk about how our faith helps us these days, as it has in other difficult times in the past. We can count together the blessings of the past or the present, bringing our hearts closer to them than to the reasons for dissatisfaction and worry.
All this should build for the elderly a reality in which their social distancing would not mean isolation and abandonment in solitude.
Feed their meaning
When you stand alone between four walls it is very easy to start feeling a victim of circumstances. The mind needs to be stimulated, and this is a little more difficult to do when sitting alone in the house. If they could go out, the senior would become aware again that the world is not limited to their house, they would see a flower, a new construction, a shop, an interesting exhibition. Maybe they would be interested in going to a concert, in a book store with a cosy reading space and beautiful events. They could go out for a chess game with the neighbours or at least to the vegetable market, where the hustle and bustle will raise their adrenaline and their spirits. They could go out to feed the pigeons in the park.
Lockdown replaced what was normal and healthy in the life of seniors with a lurking feeling of a house arrest. But the youngest, with their tireless energy and resources, can help seniors recover some of the loss by taking the initiative of social contact and giving ideas to the older ones. For example, they can organize a meeting on Zoom with several neighbours of their elder(s) and connected all of them by phone, if not all of them have internet access. It will be something new and modern for seniors and will energize them beyond the actual content of the conversation.
Or they could involve the elderly in small meaningful projects. When younger people help the elderly by doing their shopping, they could also buy them raw materials from which to make small useful items. For example, to paint encouragement cards to those in their church or to other elderly people who have no one and to collect them for when it will be safe to offer them; to knit clothes for needy children; to start a study on a topic that interests them (we can send them books via mail without personal contact).
Protect their safety
Beyond the constructive occupation of free time, the elderly need some elements that are indispensable for their physical and mental health in these moments. They need a responsible stock of medicines, which they or the young people who take care of them must check so that seniors can comply with their treatments. They need food, even if they shouldn’t leave the house — they can be helped either by their relatives who can buy them supplies for two weeks at a time, by volunteers, or they can be taught (patiently and pleasurably) to order supplies online without social contact.
Together with our seniors we can discuss a guideline so that they and we know what to do in case of an emergency. If possible, build a small support network so that the needs of the senior would not rest exclusively on one person. Know in advance who can help and for what type of intervention they may be relied on. It’s good to be in contact with the family doctor to know which medical institutions to turn to these days, when hospitals have changed their usual organization. Hygiene, which some of the elderly tend to minimize, must also be discussed because it is a very important factor for the safety of their health. They must be convinced that handwashing is, along with social distancing, the best method of prevention and that it should not be neglected, especially during this period.
By helping the most vulnerable of us, we ourselves will become aware that we are not defenceless in our current circumstances. And when we are together, even a pandemic passes more easily.
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at ST Network and Semnele timpului.
The video was created by a network of Seventh-day Adventist communicators in Europe and beyond [GAiN Europe].