“We have to do those small acts of kindness...”

By Alison Fox
April 30, 2020
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As coronavirus has swept the United States, staying home is now considered a potentially life-saving measure for vulnerable populations like senior citizens. However, after weeks of self-isolating and not seeing loved ones, experts advise that the elderly population could use some extra looking after.

“We have to figure out how to make things work between now and when we have a vaccine there to protect us,” Dr. Joan M. Griffin, an associate professor of health services research at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine specializing in the impact of family caregiving, told Travel + Leisure. “There’s no easy answer…We have to figure out ways that are acceptable to them that are going to make them feel included.

“We have to do those small acts of kindness,” and make older people feel like “they are still part of our lives and that their existence in our life really matters,” she added. 

Companies and celebrities have stepped up to help — from United Airlines helping to make calls to isolated seniors to actor Matthew McConaughey playing virtual bingo with residents of a Texas nursing home — showing that reaching out can make the day of any older person at home. 

Eleanor Dittmer, joined in the window by nurse's aide Courtney Nadeau at the Harriett and Ralph Kaplan Estates in Peabody, MA, has a drive-by birthday party in the parking lot of the facility on April 26, 2020. Family, which included her children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and others, friends and neighbors drove through the parking lot, escorted by police cars, a police motorcycle, tow trucks and a fire truck.
| Credit: Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

“When this is over, you're going to be telling stories about it and you want it to be a good story in which you acted well, where you remember yourself being generous and helpful and thinking about other people,” Dr. Karl Pillemer, a Cornell University gerontologist, told T+L. “This level of isolation as it extends from weeks to months is a risky situation for older people.”

But ultimately, the question of how to help older residents in our families and communities is a deeply personal one and needs to be done in a careful matter — experts weigh in below on how to do so in a careful and safe way. 

Stay in Touch 

All the experts we spoke to pointed to communication as the most important thing people can do to help isolated seniors. This can come in many forms from a simple phone call to more technologically-advanced options like video chat.

“We know that social isolation itself is very dangerous over the long term for older people. One of the things we are going to have to do as a society is figure out how older people are going to be able to see their families and move in a more connected [way],” Pillemer said. “This is a great moment for those older people who haven't walked across that bridge over the digital divide, now's the time. And younger friends and relatives can help them.”

If seniors aren’t ready to take the digital jump, Griffin suggested a more old fashioned approach: mailing a letter.

“There's nothing quite as fun as getting something in the mail,” she said. 

Offer to Run Errands

A woman delivers groceries to an elderly man.

With seniors being told to stay inside, everyday tasks like getting groceries have become harder. 

“Offering just to put food in front of someone's door or baking an extra banana bread goes a long way,” said Julie Rosenberg, a social worker who works with seniors at risk through the non-profit St. George's Society of New York. 

Pillemer echoed that, saying it’s important to be cognizant of elderly neighbors who you may not have thought of otherwise. Now is the time, he said, to do “the simple straightforward neighborly things that people used to do more often.”

Most importantly, the experts told us it’s imperative to drop things off at people’s doorsteps and not have any physical contact with those who are vulnerable to the virus.

Rosenberg said when delivering groceries she uses gloves and masks and puts “on a fresh pair of gloves every time I touch the bag.”

Have a Routine

Routines give people something to look forward to from week to week, whether that’s Zoom happy hours or keeping up with your weekly movie nights. That’s no different for seniors. 

“If you always had grandma over for dinner on Sunday, continue to make that same [dish] and call her and say we're having this and thinking of you,” Griffin said. “Having those same rituals because everything seems so chaotic is helpful.”

Pillemer added you can suggest ways seniors could maintain their routines — with a quarantine twist.

“You could work with them to say you can't go to the health club, but you could go for a walk at a certain time each day; we can't go out to the movies, but we could watch the same TV show and have our phones on,” he said. “There's a certain sense that, that kind of planning and routine interaction can be helpful.”

Volunteer With or Donate To a Local Agency

A resident and staff member from a senior living facility wave at Frankie, a Dachshund brought by a volunteer Saturday from the Animal Rescue League of Berks County.
| Credit: Jeremy Long/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

If you can’t be with older loved ones, one way to help is to call your local department for elderly care and ask what volunteer programs they have, Rosenberg told us. Another suggestion is to donate to a local non-profit that may already be organizing things like grocery deliveries.

In New York City, for example, Rosenberg said St. George's Society of New York is raising money to support their COVID-19 programming, while she said donating to a program like DOROT helps seniors stay connected and engaged.

Above all, Pillemer added, it’s also important to make sure older people are aware of the local resources they have available to them, ensuring they have a list of emergency contacts as well as know where to turn if they develop symptoms and even which places will deliver groceries and meals.

Take Advantage of an Older Person’s Wisdom

Seniors are seniors for a reason: they’ve lived a long life and made it through hardships before. Pillemer recommends taking advantage of that knowledge and asking older people their advice.

“The one thing that older people know that younger people don't is this will one day be over,” he said. “Talking to older people can really benefit younger people if they ask them ‘what did you do to get through hard situations like this?’ They want to be helpful, they want to be caring for their grandchildren... they want to be doing things for other people, but because they're isolated, they can't.”

“It certainly makes older people feel more useful, more necessary, that what they can share is valuable,” he added.