Caring For Your Elders During the COVID-19 Crisis is Good For You, Too
MetroHealth experts offer tips on providing emotional, physical and nutritional support to seniors
It’s still early in the fight and already two side effects of COVID-19 are hitting many of us hard: isolation and loneliness.
That’s especially true for older people who may be less mobile or live alone.
But geriatric experts at The MetroHealth System say there are dozens of ways the rest of us can help those past retirement age overcome the downside of social distancing.
“Talk to them – as often as you can,” says Dr. James Campbell, who oversees geriatrics and senior health at MetroHealth.
“Have your kids call them. Have their grandkids call them. Don’t leave them there by themselves.”
Socializing – by phone, computer, even snail mail -- with our parents, grandparents, older neighbors and friends will help them, for sure, he says.
“But it’s probably going to help you as much -- if not more -- than them.”
Erin Rader, a MetroHealth psychiatric nurse practitioner who specializes in geriatrics, agrees.
“If you want to feel better yourself,” she says, “do something for somebody else.”
And remember, family and friends in their 70s, 80s and beyond need you even more right now.
To help them lower their stress, encourage them to turn off the TV and talk about their feelings.
“They cannot have their bodies and their minds on high alert all the time, it will just wear them out and lower their immune systems,” Rader says.
“What I tell them to do is check the news twice a day – once in the morning and once in the evening.”
The rest of their day can be filled with all kinds of fun.
One way to ward off the depression that isolation can bring on is to ask them to write notes to their grandchildren.
“That just lights them up,” Rader says. “And all you have to do is put it in the mailbox. You don’t even have to go out.”
But going out is a good idea, too, even if it’s just on the porch or in the back yard.
“That increases the endorphins and serotonin and makes people feel better,” she says, referring to substances in our bodies that reduce pain and increase feelings of happiness and well-being.
Staying physically healthy is important to mental health too.
So offer to pick up prescriptions or have refills delivered to their home. And remind them that even if they can’t have an in-person visit with a doctor, nurse or therapist, they can have a telephone visit or online chat.
One of Rader’s other favorite tips is to have her patients try neurobics – mental exercises that strengthen their brains. Writing or brushing your teeth with your nondominant hand or taking a new route to the grocery store are examples. Trying anything new, especially if it involves the senses, helps expand the mind, too.
“Try one new thing a day,” Rader says. “It’s like a vitamin for the brain.”
Vitamins are something Angela Majerle also emphasizes.
She’s a clinical dietitian at MetroHealth who specializes in senior health and wellness
If you’re helping those who can’t – or shouldn’t – go out in public, she recommends dropping off foods rich in beta carotene, Vitamin C, Vitamin E and zinc: sweet potatoes, red peppers, carrots, oranges, strawberries, spinach, broccoli, beans, nuts and seeds.
“Those are big in antioxidants that are going to help boost the immune system,” Majerle says. “And consider frozen fruits and vegetables in addition to fresh. They will last longer and give folks variety.”
Foods high in Vitamin D -- which can be found in dairy products, almond and other plant-based milk and fortified cereals -- are helpful, too.
If you’re preparing meals, try making dishes that include those foods. Chili, stew, stir fry and lasagna are good examples. But avoid prepared versions, which are usually high in fat and sodium.
And, if older friends and family want to get out, remind them that they can take advantage of the senior shopping hours, with fewer customers, that many stores are now offering.
Don’t forget exercise either.
“It’s essential right now,” says MetroHealth physical therapist Jonathan Hartstein, “to help improve heart, lung and muscle and brain function and reduce the risk of depression.”
He encourages seniors to exercise for 5 to 10 minutes every two to three hours, choosing from the simple exercises in the attached chart.
“But inactive people should start with smaller amounts of activity and gradually increase the number of repetitions over time,” he says.
Hartstein wants you to be careful, too. Anyone with balance issues should have someone nearby to assist, he says. And those with medical conditions should check with their physical therapist or doctor first.
If distance or other responsibilities keep you from helping, remember there are others you can call including the United Way of Greater Cleveland’s 2-1-1 line for help or the Aging and Disability Resource Center helpline for older adults and people with disabilities: (216) 539-9240 or 1-800-626-7277.
And look at all this as an opportunity, Dr. Campbell says.
“Fill older relatives in on your life and ask about their life.
“Ask them questions you never thought to ask before: ‘Tell me about your first date. Tell me about the most interesting thing you ever did or the best vacation you ever took.’
“And in the end, get to know your parents and grandparents better than you ever did before.”
The MetroHealth System is redefining health care by going beyond medical treatment to improve the foundations of community health and well-being: affordable housing, a cleaner environment, economic opportunity and access to fresh food, convenient transportation, legal help and other services. The system strives to become as good at preventing disease as it is at treating it.
The system’s more than 600 doctors, 1,700 nurses and 7,800 employees go to work each day with a mission of service, to their patients and to the community. As Cuyahoga County’s safety-net health system, MetroHealth plays an essential role in the region, caring for anyone and everyone, regardless of an ability to pay.
Founded in 1837, MetroHealth operates four hospitals, four emergency departments and more than 20 health centers and 40 additional sites throughout Cuyahoga County. The system serves more than 300,000 patients, two-thirds of whom are uninsured or covered by Medicare or Medicaid.
MetroHealth is home to Cuyahoga County’s most experienced Level I Adult Trauma Center, verified since 1992, and Ohio’s only adult and pediatric trauma and burn center.
As an academic medical center, MetroHealth is committed to research and to teaching and training tomorrow’s caregivers. Each active staff physician holds a faculty appointment at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. Its main campus hospital houses the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s Lincoln-West School of Science & Health, the only high school in America located inside a hospital.
Knowing that good health is about much more than good medical care, MetroHealth has launched the Institute for H.O.P.E.™ (Health, Opportunity, Partnership, Empowerment), which uses a coordinated, collaborative and strategic approach to help patients with non-medical needs such as healthy food, stable housing and job training.
The MetroHealth Glick Center, a new 11-floor hospital, is under construction on the system’s main campus in Cleveland and is scheduled to welcome its first patients in October 2022. The billion-dollar project is the cornerstone of a wider neighborhood revitalization effort led by the system and its partners in the community.
For more information, visit metrohealth.org.