How to Talk with Seniors About COVID-19
As a vulnerable population group, seniors have had more challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. The resulting isolation from quarantine, lifestyle changes from stay-at-home orders, and health adjustments have affected seniors in many different ways. Many people are hitting a tolerance limit on talking or hearing about the pandemic, and many others are struggling with their experiences. It’s understandable if you may be reluctant or unsure in approaching your loved ones about how they’re affected.
Tips for talking to seniors about COVID-19
Era Living’s Director of Resident and Family Supportive Programs, Suzanne Sturdivant, LICSW, works daily with Era Living residents and their social workers, counselors, and family members. She’s developed a clear understanding of the range of emotions and needs that older adults are experiencing during the pandemic. With her insight and ideas, here are a few conversation tips and things to keep in mind when talking with loved ones about COVID-19 and helping them adjust to the “new normal for now.”
Think of their unique needs
Like anything else, it’s best to approach a conversation with your loved one with their personality and needs in mind. When talking about the ways that COVID-19 has changed their lifestyle and how it will affect their immediate future, it can help to think about what they best respond to. You can also look back at approaches that have worked in the past and start there.
If your loved one has difficulty managing stress, it may help to start with comforting solutions. These could include outlining next steps during the business re-open phases, or drawing up a list of reliable and calm people to call during panic or anxiety. If your loved one is struggling with cognitive impairment, it’s best to keep details as simple and clear as possible and avoid overwhelming them. And if your loved one is a straight shooter, being direct may be the best way to address their needs.
Practice active listening
Sturdivant advises to practice active listening when talking to older adults about stressful or emotional topics. Active listening is an important way to be fully present, connect, and improve communication. Giving someone your full attention, maintaining eye contact, concentrating on their words, and watching body language and expressions are all ways to practice active listening.
It can also help your loved one to feel heard and understood if you repeat or reflect back to them what you’re hearing and observing. If they’re having difficulty finding the right words, you may be able to help them express their thoughts (and don’t be afraid to guess).
Active listening can also be just that—listening. It may be as simple as being with them and offering physical comfort, like holding hands or sitting arm-in-arm if your loved one is currently living with you. Sometimes we run out of words, can’t muster them up, or are exhausted. It’s during these times that being understood in silence can be comforting.
Let them know their feelings are valid and normal
Many older adults are grieving the loss of both lifestyle and time with their loved ones. They may also be experiencing fear, anxiety, depression, and loneliness on top of all that. Processing hard emotions (especially grief) is not linear; there’s no set timeline or order. Sadness on Monday could shift to optimism on Thursday and back to a bleak outlook on Sunday. Additionally, your loved ones may be confused by the fact that they’re exhausted when they haven’t even left the house. Sturdivant calls this “corona fatigue.”
“We’re all exhausted by it,” she says. “It’s really normal for this to feel traumatic. It’s taking an emotional toll on the world. This is when it’s so important for seniors to feel heard.”
Sturdivant advises going into these conversations with clarity on your own emotions on the pandemic. This may help you listen calmly with an open heart and mind, remove judgment, and meet your loved one exactly where they’re at. This may also help you to normalize your loved ones’ feelings and experiences. “There are as many realities as there are people in a conversation,” she says.
Help them reframe their situation
In her role at Era Living, Sturdivant sees the gamut of reactions and emotions during COVID-19—including positive ones. She encourages asking seniors when talking about COVID-19 to think about any new silver linings, unexpected positives, and hidden opportunities that have come up. These may include more connection with family or friends, benefiting from telemedicine, learning a new skill, or experiencing more peace and calm during this less active period.
It’s important not to force these perspectives on your loved ones or minimize their struggles. They may feel that it’s condescending to be told what to appreciate. If they’re unable to find the positives, try to guide the conversation to help them get there on their own.
Help them maintain independence and stability
Right now, many seniors are struggling with uncertainty. It’s not yet clear when or if they’ll be able to return to an active lifestyle and see their family and friends. They may also have lost an independent routine that included going to appointments, activities, and exercise facilities.
During this time, it can help when talking to seniors about COVID-19 to acknowledge the uncertainty and adjust around it. Talk with your loved one about where they feel a lack of control and stability. Once you identify those areas, you can help them work out where they can create and navigate a new schedule with predictable activities. This may be as simple as a daily health activity, a bedtime ritual, a weekly phone date, or weekly skill improvement. If they’re able to volunteer, volunteering remotely could also help create a stronger sense of independence. As a bonus, volunteering can increase feelings of positivity and connection and reduce the risk of loneliness.
Encourage them to take a news break
It’s now common advice for people to put themselves on a “news diet.” High intake of pandemic-related news and social media may contribute to increased stress, anxiety, and depression. If you notice that your loved one has television, radio, or print news surrounding them for hours, you might try suggesting that they see how it feels to scale back. News diets usually involve scheduling a limited set time for news and social media and relying only on trusted, expert, unbiased sources.
Phrase this current time as the “new normal for now”
Sturdivant has also seen a large spectrum of attitudes on the next steps for businesses and society. “This is not forever—it’s more digestible to call this a ‘new normal for now’,” says Sturdivant. She advises to take this approach when it comes to the different phases that businesses will be employing as they re-open. Framing these phases as temporary situations may help your loved ones feel more at ease and hopeful.
Lastly, Sturdivant would like to remind families that if their loved one lives in an Era Living community, social workers/counselors are available to support them emotionally. If they feel their loved one could benefit from phone support from a counselor, then they can contact the Executive Director or front desk to discuss.