Supporting Aged Relatives Through COVID-19

culture Mar 20, 2020

Caring for life, family and community during COVID-19

Over the last weeks, at Adaptive Cultures much of our focus has been on supporting our team and our clients through extraordinary disruption.  Above and beyond this, we have also had the needs of families and friends take centre stage as I am sure many of you are experiencing.

Over the last two weeks we have attended to the very young and the elders in our immediate ecosystems.  From facilitating two emergency evacuations home for young adults in different parts of the world, to setting up Zoom reading hour for working parents challenged with a house full of children, to supporting our elders to maintain connection whilst isolated in their own home and in aged care facilities.

One of our team members has a grandmother turning 100 in May and her birthday party (planned with people flying in from all corners of the globe) has been postponed indefinitely.  A celebration on her actual birthday is currently being reimagined given the current constraints – any ideas welcome!

When we reached out to our community asking what help they needed, we received responses that ideas about how to cope with life outside of “remote working” would be useful.  This article is one in a series exploring whole of life impacts of COVID-19 and focusses on supporting aged relatives.

Supporting aged relatives through Covid-19

During times like this, it is often the weakest and most vulnerable who are most at risk.  There is a temptation to keep our loved ones away from harm.  Yet putting older people into social isolation also has implications for psychological health and well-being.  The following are some fundamental principles and ideas to support our loved ones to manage both their social and physical well-being during this time.

These ideas have come from our experiences with aged parents. It would be great to hear others’ hints, tips and perspectives.

  • Autonomy with guidance

Curtailing social freedom goes against the grain of a large proportion of us; particularly people who are in the latter stages of their lives and may never have experienced quarantining or enforced social distancing. It is also a very confusing time, as the information is changing so rapidly, there is seemingly contradictory advice, and the amount of information is overwhelming.

At a time in their life that they see many of their freedoms dwindling (for example, may no longer be able to drive), it is crucial that the elderly feel they have a say in any changes that impact on their lifestyle. Work through with your loved ones to understand their routines, their needs and their concerns and lay out some possible ways forward that can still meet their needs in a low-risk environment.  For example, if they are unable to go to the library, support them to go online to borrow e-books from their library, or purchase book from a distributor.

New Zealand or Australian government guidelines for social isolation provide excellent guidance and reinforce the importance of social contact.

  • Make it as easy as possible to make changes.

Many older people have not grown up in the technology age or possibly may not have worked for many years. They may also have become increasingly reliant on the stability provided by regular routines.  Suggested changes can be met with overwhelm, resistance and distress.

Reinforce that you are there to support their needs and to help them to problem-solve. Where there are barriers, help them to take away the obstacles that may seem impossible to them, yet are part of what you overcome daily. Remind them that any changes you are suggesting are because you love them and want them to be safe, without curtailing their happiness.

For example, setting up Skype or zoom for them at their place and then setting up a regular time to dial in. Call them, so they need to respond (rather than figuring out how to make the call). If your elderly relatives are slightly more tech-savvy, set up a WhatsApp group with family members for some good chat and banter. This can also provide a sense of being listened to, acknowledged and part of the family.

  • Keep physical distance with psychological proximity.

Social distancing is different from social isolation. We can provide physical distance from people without losing contact. Help them explore ways that they can stay in touch. If they have regular respites such as visiting a local café or shopping, they could instead go for a walk in a park or natural environment with their carer.

  • Engage their whole ecosystem in the conversation

Neighbours, friends, close relatives, service providers and health professionals are all crucial to their ongoing support. If your loved ones are receiving aged care assistance (whether that be home care, or are in an assisted living residence), contact the provider.  Understand what measures they have in place to ensure that any service providers that they are exposed to have measures in place to reduce the risk of transfer of any virus. Ask them how they are continuing to monitor and implement government guidance.

Arrange a roster of relatives to check in with them. Any relatives that travel or live in areas where Covid-19 is present should stay away in the short term. For those that are low risk, maintain visitations while possible, even if at a safe distance. Share the tasks and challenges you face with other brothers, sisters or close relatives.

Invite neighbours to check-in or chat and connect with them from a distance – over a balcony or fence, across a garden path, through a door or window screen. Borrow from the Italians and have concerts across the neighbourhood!

  • Stay ahead of the curve and maintain a longer-term perspective.

Your local jurisdiction may be slow in making tough decisions. This can have significant risks. Limiting visitors to aged care facilities may be a useful measure for the community to implement ahead of formal mandates.  Any outbreak has a much higher likelihood of fatality for older people than the general population (people over 80 typically have a 20% mortality rate from Covid-19; this could be much higher for those over 90 or with existing respiratory ailments).

Look at what other jurisdictions are doing. For example, England is bringing in a mandatory quarantine of 30 days for people over the age of 70. Any guidance will likely change, and more medium-term stability will be created by going further now.

Remind them that this is temporary (without committing to a timeframe). As the health system comes to grips with the challenge and more resources become available (tests, respirators and ventilators), the risks are likely to decrease significantly. And at some stage soon, vaccines may be available.

Remember, above all, to hold compassion and love for yourself and them through what can be a very emotional time.

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