The COVID-19 pandemic has had dramatic effects on so many aspects of our lives. But for those living in skilled nursing or rehabilitation facilities, as well as their families, the pandemic has been particularly difficult. Most of these facilities have limited or altogether eliminated outside visitors due to their residents’ higher risk of infection and death. According to statistics, eight out of 10 deaths from COVID-19 have been people age 65 or older. As we age, our immune systems simply aren’t as strong, and many older people have additional health concerns that can exponentially increase their chances of complications if infected.
While we are all doing our best to stay safe, social distance, wear masks and wash our hands, that’s often not enough to protect this vulnerable group of people. Since face to face visits may not be an option this year, here are a few other ways you can connect with your loved ones in long-term care this holiday season.
We’ve all gotten a lot more comfortable these days with FaceTime, Skype, Zoom and other forms of video-phone communication. Long-term care facilities are no exception and many of them will assist residents with setting up and attending these calls with family and friends. Sometimes it can be hard to get a whole family (especially the kids and teenagers) on a call at once, so consider emailing or texting photos and videos to keep them in the loop.
Of course, regular old phone calls are welcome, too. Consider setting up a phone schedule with other members of your family to ensure your loved one is getting a phone call once a day or several times a week.
Sharing a Meal
Another idea is to share a virtual meal together, perhaps made with a family recipe. Some facilities will allow you to drop off a serving for the resident, so you can eat at the same time, chatting over the phone. Check if it’s okay to have food delivered from a restaurant; it can be a welcome change from the same old fare made onsite.
Create a Photo Album
So many websites offer easy ways to make custom photo albums, but you could also go the DIY route and print some of your favorite photos at home on your printer, bind them together and make a little booklet that the resident can page through again and again. You can caption the pages to identify family and friends as well as dates and locations.
As of this writing, 41 states were allowing visits to nursing homes, assisted living and rehabilitation facilities. However, some facilities continue to restrict visits to ensure the safety of their residents; protocols vary widely by individual location. Check for updated information on the status of your state.
What About Residents With No Family?
If you are interested in helping residents with no family to write or call them, it’s best to call the facility directly and ask about their policy. There may be a volunteer organization that is writing letters and/or making calls. Another option is to check with the Friendship Line, founded 40 years ago. It’s now national and accredited as a combined crisis line and “warmline” for callers who are just lonely. It is targeted to serve disabled adults and people age 60 and above.
Some residence facilities are allowing window visits. The resident stays indoors, seated near a main-floor window, and the visitor can “visit” through the glass. It may be possible to chat, and certainly you can exchange smiles. Homemade signs can be designed for special occasions like birthdays.
Send Some Snail Mail
Older residents will appreciate the gift of a hand written letter many times over. There’s the anticipation every time they go to the mailbox, the excitement when they see a letter, the fun of opening and reading it, and the continued comfort in reading it again and again. Keep your news cheery, with updates on family activities. Kids can add a note and/or draw a picture. Enclose a magnet or clip so the letter or pictures can stay in sight.
Make a Recording
You can send a recorded text message or voicemail so your loved one can hear your voice over and over. Consider asking about long-ago events, such as “When we lived in Texas, you had a Girl Scout troop. Do you remember some of the things your troop did?” You can then leave a silent space for the resident’s response. If the resident has dementia, it may be played repeatedly.
Send a Caregiver
If you are fortunate enough to have extra funds, consider having a caregiver visit the resident. Most facilities allow CNAs to enter, and having a visitor devoted just to the resident for a couple of hours can be enormously uplifting. This person may help with exercises, dust and tidy, assist with a project such as going through photos, facilitate calls, or simply engage the resident in conversation.
The resident may well have days, or every day, when he or she needs to vent — about the loneliness, the food, the staff, or whatever. You can help just by listening and commiserating. It’s a lousy time to be shut away, no matter how nice the facility may be. Elizabeth St. John, a licensed clinical social worker at Stanford Health Care, says that older adults need to talk to people who “can just listen and validate their feelings. Be the person who will bear witness to their sadness, stress, and anxiety and who will let them reminisce because this is a really sad time.”
While these are all great ideas, it’s important, especially during the holidays, not to bear the entire burden of connecting with your loved one in long-term care. Communicate with family and friends, and spread the work around to avoid caregiver burnout. It’s likely that other members of the family or family friends will be appreciative to have been trusted with the task of reaching out, and will especially appreciate suggestions on how to do so. Often the only thing keeping people from making the effort is not knowing the best way to do so.
Tull Financial Group is a fee-only advisory firm and a proud member of NAPFA (National Association of Personal Financial Advisors). The team at TFG is committed to providing the best wealth management and retirement planning services by creating and maintaining relationships that go beyond your bank account so that we can help you achieve your financial goals. For seniors, we have an experienced Certified Senior Advisor (CSA)® on our team who can help with financial planning services for the transitions needed in later years.