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by Carolyn Rosenblatt
June 18, 2020
by Carolyn Rosenblatt
June 18, 2020
For months, most of us have been following the quarantine rules, staying at home and respecting the infectious nature of COVID-19. We know that our elders, that is, people over 65 are at greatest risk and that the risk is even higher for those in their 80s and above. How long does this have to go on? When can the grandkids see their beloved grandparents?
So far, there is no clear governmental guidance about when it will be okay to visit aging loved ones, particularly in senior care homes. But we do know some precautions that minimize risk and that can make it possible to safely visit loved ones or allow them to visit us. As summer approaches and outdoor visits are more feasible, consider the common sense notions that will allow you to balance both risks and benefits in visiting aging parents.
First, consider the reality that social isolation is linked to negative health outcomes, regardless of what causes social isolation. The loneliness of our older population has been well studied by researchers and the universal conclusion is that being alone too much is just not good for anyone, especially elders. So, the risk of isolating them for endless periods is in itself a health risk. Next, consider the age of your loved ones: in their 70’s with decent health? In their 80s with serious conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity? In their 90s and frail, dependent on others for almost all care? These are factors to consider when you analyze the risk/benefit ratio.
Can you go outside? We have learned that the novel coronavirus does not spread as easily outdoors compared with being inside in enclosed spaces. Can you get Grandma outdoors to see you? Is a picnic with precautions feasible?
Masks for everyone of course. Kids will wear them if they are told it’s to protect grandparents from getting sick. That’s not a difficult concept to convey. Handwashing for everyone after touching anything is essential. Carry hand sanitizer and use it if you’re outdoors away from a sink. Use social distancing with all family members. The more frail your aging parents are and the more health conditions they have, the farther apart you should stay for your family visit. Ten feet is not too much if your loved one is in poor health to begin with, as we know that in some situations, the virus can be carried on the air for more than six feet. Okay, if they’re hard of hearing, you’ll have to accommodate by really speaking up.
If you plan to share a meal, have the portions prepared ahead of time and put in boxes or covered disposable plates so that there is no passing dishes around. Use gloves to handle things you give your loved ones and dispose of the gloves after use. Sit in the sun when you can, as some evidence suggests that the sun’s ultraviolet light destroys viruses. Of course, you can’t overdo that with elders, who may be very sensitive to too much sun exposure from medication side effects or other factors. This is another common-sense move: some sun, more shade.
Should you touch your elders? Should kids give them a hug? There is no easy answer. The benefits of touch are obvious. We all need affection, care and the feel of a hug. It uplifts the spirit. But you wouldn’t want to transmit disease in exchange for that feeling. Keeping masked faces away from each other is one possibility with a quick hug. Letting small kids hug grandparents’ waist or knees is another. Using protective coverings on your bodies and theirs is a possible other precaution. A garbage bag gown was a last resort for hospital workers who were deprived of standard disposable gowns as part of their personal protective equipment. If I had a grandparent I wanted to visit, and hug, I’d make my own garbage bag gown with plastic bag sleeves and gloves so I could make a hug work with minimal risk. Some families have devised wonderful plastic barrier structures to allow hugging grandma.
All this may sound like a lot of trouble, and so awkward. It is. But if we don’t adapt to the current terrifying risks of COVID-19, we are endangering our elders. At AgingParents.com, my consulting business, I have not yet been asked about visits by family to elders in isolation, locked-down facilities, or whether it’s okay to bring mom and dad over for a visit to the adult childrens’ home. When I am asked, I will guide the family with questions through the risk/benefit analysis as I have done here. Each family has its own considerations. It seems to me that we must find a way to reunite with our aging loved ones while we work on minimizing risks. If we think it through thoroughly, make a plan, and provide for all the precautions discussed here, I believe that in many cases, we can make it work. Connection, affection, shared meals and a very carefully planned visit are indeed medicine for our aging parents and for us.