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.”
Founded in 1837, MetroHealth is leading the way to a healthier you and a healthier community through service, teaching, discovery, and teamwork. Cuyahoga County’s public, safety-net hospital system, MetroHealth meets people where they are, providing care through four hospitals, four emergency departments, and more than 20 health centers and 40 additional sites. Each day, our 8,000 employees focus on providing our community with equitable health care–through patient-focused research, access to care, and support services–that seeks to eradicate health disparities rooted in systematic barriers. For more information, visit metrohealth.org.