May 5, 2020

UCalgary expert: How to help socially isolated seniors during COVID-19

Director of UCalgary’s Healthy Aging Lab shares tips on supporting older adults in need

Mandatory social isolation in the midst of the global COVID-19 crisis is a distressing and surreal trial for us all, but the hardships can have an even greater impact on our most vulnerable citizens. Among these vulnerable groups are the elderly.

Seniors in need of care before the pandemic struck now have their support systems vastly compromised on a number of levels as essential services, health care, and even family contact is limited — in some cases cut off — due to the harsh, unprecedented realities of a COVID-19 world.

What can we do to help them? What are some of the things they might be able to do to help themselves?

We reached out with our questions to Dr. Candace Konnert, PhD, a psychologist who leads the University of Calgary’s Healthy Aging Lab. Konnert’s insights and recommendations were invaluable, full of information that might provide some relief, or, perhaps, even save the lives of the senior citizens we love.

Here are some of the key highlights of our conversation with Konnert.

On diversity among seniors and caregivers

“I think it’s important to acknowledge that among older adults there’s a tremendous amount of variability,” says Konnert. “In terms of chronological age, ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic standing, the varying degrees of cognitive and physical impairments … This is really a diverse population.” Similarly, caregivers themselves are a widely disparate group which can include the adult children of seniors as well as spouses with their own health issues. Caregiving capacity will differ greatly.

On the unique challenges faced by seniors in isolation

It’s well documented that seniors, many of whom have underlying health issues and compromised immune systems, are more vulnerable to COVID-19. “There’s a subset of older adults that were already socially isolated, with multiple physical and mental health problems. This is the group we’re most concerned about,” says Konnert. “One of the problems with being socially isolated is that we can wind up being lost in our own world, focused only on the negative."

When we don’t have that contact with other people, we can wind up feeling helpless and hopeless. This is really exacerbated at this time.

Konnert adds that many older adults rely on the social contact provided by community services, such as home care staff and Meals on Wheels, which are being severely compromised.

As well, difficult ethical decisions are being made as to who’s most worthy of care. “It may come down to something as harsh and pragmatic as who’s going to get a ventilator. And, if you’re over 90, somebody might decide you will never get a ventilator,” says Konnert. “I think this pandemic has brought to light the serious underfunding of long-term care across Canada.”

Dr. Candace Konnert leads the University of Calgary’s Healthy Aging Lab.

Dr. Candace Konnert leads the University of Calgary’s Healthy Aging Lab.

Signs to watch for that seniors are struggling

Konnert lists increased withdrawal, changes in eating or sleep patterns, anxiety, worry that can’t be controlled, and catastrophic thinking as tell-tale signs that depression or anxiety are taking over.

Signs that an older person is more confused or disoriented are also red flags to watch for.

What can we do to help the seniors in our families?

“Sometimes it’s as simple as just making a phone call and saying ‘I’m thinking of you,’ ” says Konnert. “Or writing a note of encouragement and sending it in the mail. A small gesture like that goes a long way to lifting one’s spirits.”

When people are anxious, stressed or lonely, negative thoughts and depression can take over. Konnert recommends focusing conversations on positive thinking as much as possible, with hope for the future, good past memories and even the telling of jokes a time-tested remedy for beating the blues. Activities like puzzles, gardening, reading books and sorting through old photo albums could be helpful, too.

“Instrumental support” is a must. This includes making sure older adults have the medication and food delivery they need. Ensuring they’re getting the right information about COVID-19 — including symptoms, transmission and prevention — is also important. “Especially for those who might have memory impairment,” Konnert adds.

Encouraging older adults to keep on a schedule can be beneficial, too. “You might say ‘I’ll call you at specific points in the day.’ It gives people something to look forward to.”

Konnert also recommends keeping a list of emergency numbers by the phone, with a set of necessary instructions in times of emergency.

Be aware of other seniors in your community

Not all seniors have family close by to watch out for them. There may be older adults in our communities who are truly alone. “If you know of an older person in the neighbourhood and you remember that they’re normally out for a walk, or in their yards, and now you don’t see them, they may be in need of assistance,” says Konnert. “It’s such a stereotype, but it really does take a village to care for the older people in our communities. If you can, reach out to those people. See if they need your help.”

Don’t overlook the strengths of our seniors

“We have to remember that older adults, for all the challenges they face, often have significant strengths,” Konnert points out. “Many of them have experienced a lot of adversity in their lives. They’ve lived through wars, economic depressions, they’ve lost friends and relatives. We know that tremendous resilience, greater wisdom and adaptability can come from difficult life events. Many of these older adults might cope better than younger generations. They also might have valuable advice to share with us, and we shouldn’t forget that.”

Resources

There are a number of organization that are trying to meet the needs of older isolated people, Konnert says. They include: 

  • Distress Centre (24-hour support): 403-266-4357
  • Calgary Seniors’ Resource Society: 403-266-6200
  • Kerby Centre: 403-265-0661
  • Alzheimer Society of Calgary: 403-290-0110
  • City of Calgary COVID-19: Seniors’ Support 

Dr. Candace Konnert, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Arts, and a researcher with the Brenda Strafford Centre of Aging within the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine.

UCalgary resources on COVID-19

For the most up-to-date information about the University of Calgary's response to the spread of COVID-19, visit the UCalgary COVID-19 Response website.

For resources to support students, faculty, staff, alumni, and all our communities during this unprecedented time, visit the UCalgary COVID-19 Community Support website.