by Suzanne Grimmesey, MFT,
Santa Barbara County, Behavioral Wellness Department
According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), loneliness among older adults is often described as an epidemic, with serious physical and mental health consequences, including a higher risk for dementia. Some experts say the socially isolating pandemic has the potential to make this epidemic even worse, leading to more memory loss and other cognitive problems among vulnerable older people.
Oftentimes, as people get older, if they are isolated or socially less stimulated, they tend to develop dementia earlier than others. Loneliness is a particular risk factor for dementia if someone already is developing early markers of Alzheimer's disease in the brain (often well before cognitive symptoms result), according to geriatric psychiatrist Peter Rabins, an Alzheimer's disease expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Loneliness — the subjective feeling of distress caused by feeling lonely, as opposed to the physical state of isolation — was already rampant before “social distancing” became a household phrase this year: Some 43 percent of adults age 60 and older reported feeling lonely in a 2018 survey from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that was sponsored by AARP Foundation.
So what can you do to help keep an aging loved one engaged and not feel socially isolated in the pandemic? Here are some ideas to show that you care, while still maintaining safe distancing.
1. Send something in the mail
Handwritten cards and letters are more special than ever, perhaps because electronic communication is increasingly supplanting them. Recipients can display the cards and re-read correspondence to remind themselves that you care.
2. Share a virtual meal
Plan a long-distance date. Order what your loved one likes — and pay for it — via a meal delivery service and make sure the meal gets there at the appropriate time. Then call to talk during the meal, making sure that your resident knows how to use a speakerphone feature on their cellphone or landline phone.
3. Use other delivery services
You know the snacks your loved one likes. Since you can't bring a few packages of treats during a visit, arrange for a bulk delivery.
For those in assisted living or independent living who still like to cook, you can get their grocery lists and do the shopping for them or use a shopping service. Deliver the food as close in as you're allowed and make sure to put the name and address or room number of the recipient on the boxes or bags.
4. Create your own FaceTime book club
If your children are at an age where they love being read to, make sure Grandma or Grandpa has some kids’ books they can read aloud — if they don't, order some online — using the video-calling feature on their digital device.
Among the most popular video calling apps is Apple's FaceTime, but that's for iPhones, iPads and Macintosh computers only. Amazon Alexa, Facebook Messenger, Google Duo, IMO, Skype, Viber and WhatsApp also work on Google Android, Microsoft Windows and other devices.
Be sure to coordinate so that everybody is on the same platform. This way, grandkids of different siblings can be on the same story time call. Both grandparent and grandchild can read a couple of chapters of the same book and talk about their impressions or what they learned.
Watching the same TV show, such as a documentary, can help spark discussions that spans generations.
If reading a book or watching a documentary isn't an option, perhaps because of your loved one's memory loss, help the kids in a sing-along. Singing old, familiar songs — “Happy Birthday,” classic hymns if they're religious — can bring back memories and is a skill that often remains even if speech is difficult.
5. Order a jigsaw puzzle — of your family
Mail-order companies specialize in custom puzzles from photographs or perhaps your child's artwork.
If your care recipient is a puzzle lover, you can have a puzzle delivered that contains 2,000 or more pieces. But also available are those with as few as 15 pieces, which might work well for people with dementia or less dexterity.
6. Play a board game
Think about the games your family loved growing up, such as Clue, Monopoly, Life, Scrabble or Sorry, or if you have young kids, children's classics such as Candyland or Chutes and Ladders. Familiarity with the rules is important.
Backgammon, bingo and chess also will work if you've played those in the past and both sides know the lingo of the game. Make sure identical game boards are set up at your house and your loved one's home. You and your family then can play the game over the telephone, talking about how the dice landed and what moves your game piece is making.
A cellphone set on speaker will work well for this because games sometimes take hours. A video call also will add dimension but isn't necessary if everyone commits to narrating their actions.
7. Assemble a hobby box
This is a great time to find a nice box at a craft store, perhaps decorate it and fill it with items that your loved ones can come back to again and again.
Put in items that will work with their existing hobbies or ask what they've always wanted to try. Think crossword puzzle books for those who like a brain challenge, paints and suitable paper for those who have been artistic in the craft room.
Remember that many communities have suspended group activities including crafts, so your loved ones have a lot more free time on their hands.
It is important to know that help is available in Santa Barbara County. The County’s Community Wellness Team is a collaboration of many local agencies working together to support the wellness of our community. In addition, the Community Wellness Team is offering a Holiday Phone Bridge program where seniors can receive regular calls from volunteers through the Holiday season. For those interested, please call the Community Wellness Line at (805) 364-2750.
Suzanne Grimmesey, MFT, is the County of Santa Barbara’s Chief Quality Care and Strategy Officer and is responsible for leadership of Quality Care and Strategy Management within the Department of Behavioral Wellness.