We’re all supposed to be practicing “social distancing” these days—and if you regularly visit, check in on, or care for an elderly relative, you might be wondering whether that means you should stop visiting them.
The answer is... well, it’s complicated, and I’m not in any position to provide any kind of prescriptive advice. I will note that, as you probably already know, older adults (especially those who have pre-existing health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, or lung disease) are considered higher risk.
This means that if they end up catching COVID-19, there is an increased risk that they might develop a more serious illness, such as pneumonia—and there’s an increased risk that they might die.
Since you can be infected with the coronavirus and not know it (perhaps your symptoms have not yet developed; perhaps you don’t realise that cough is more than your allergies acting up), you might inadvertently spread the disease to elderly loved ones during a casual visit. If you visit someone who lives in a nursing home or care facility, you run the risk of accidentally carrying COVID-19 into a group of high-risk individuals.
On the other hand, if you don’t check in on your loved ones, they run the risk of developing social isolation—which is a serious issue, particularly in the elderly. As Jenny Anderson writes, in Quartz:
Telling my mother to recede from the world feels antithetical to everything I know about how to respond to a crisis. Like most people who have made it to 80, my mum has faced a lot of losses—a son and a husband in recent years, not to mention many friends. Being connected to others is part of what has saved her from the anger and despair that are natural companions to deep grief and suffering. Now, to minimise her chances of contracting coronavirus, I am asking her to stop doing the thing we have been encouraging her to do for years: get out, explore, embrace the world.
Or, as Jamil Zaki explains in the Washington Post:
Social distancing is indispensable right now, but so is social connection. Our televisions and social media feeds are pulsing with anxiety. The most vulnerable to covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus — the elderly, for instance — are also most susceptible to crippling isolation. If we allow physical distance to become chronic, widespread loneliness, we risk adding a mental health crisis to a viral one. Loneliness might also spur people to ignore public health recommendations, increasing our collective risk.
So what should you do?
One option is to embrace technology. Use FaceTime, Skype, Facebook Portal, or similar video chat services to have face-to-face conversations with loved ones. If your elderly relatives and friends don’t have access to these services, call them on the phone. Every day. Maybe twice a day, if you can.
Do your part to help your loved ones feel connected, give them the opportunity to share their thoughts and concerns, and remind them that you’re still there for them—even though you can’t be there in person.
The CDC also has advice for people caring for elderly loved ones:
Know what medications your loved one is taking and see if you can help them have extra on hand.
Monitor food and other medical supplies (oxygen, incontinence, dialysis, wound care) needed and create a back-up plan.
Stock up on non-perishable food items to have on hand in your home to minimise trips to stores.
If you care for a loved one living in a care facility, monitor the situation, ask about the health of the other residents frequently and know the protocol if there is an outbreak.
Remember, there are ways to get food and supplies to elderly relatives without having to break “social distancing” rules. You could order various necessities online and have them dropped off on a loved one’s doorstep. You could drop them off yourself, and wave at your loved one through the window. If your loved one is in a nursing home or care facility, ask the staff what they need and/or recommend (they may want you to stay away completely, for example), and then follow their advice.
And if you do visit elderly relatives and friends in person, wash your hands immediately after you arrive and consider limiting physical contact. But if you feel sick—even a little bit sick—it’s probably best that you stay home.