Ashley Sumler and her team of Life Enrichment coordinators have adjusted to supporting thousands of seniors living at Amica residences who are staying in their suites to stop the spread of coronavirus. With dining rooms and fitness centres closed, team members have organized video calls, online exercise classes and balcony singalongs to help keep spirits up and everyone safe. While following Amica’s strict safety measures, team members are doing everything they can to help residents, says Sumler, Amica’s Manager of Life Enrichment. “We are taking on the role of friend, family member, provider and caregiver.”
What can families do when they can’t visit seniors? Although non-essential visits have been restricted at Amica to limit COVID-19, there’s lots that families can do to stay close and supportive while staying apart. Here are nine ways to connect with seniors whether they’re happy and bored or feeling lonely and anxious.
#1 Pick up the phone
This may sound obvious, but Sumler confirms that phone calls — from sons, daughters, siblings and grandchildren — are having a wonderful effect on seniors living at Amica. Getting an impromptu call or scheduling one in advance helps loved ones get the social connection that happened naturally before the pandemic from family visits and daily time in the shared spaces of each residence. “Reaching out to share how much their connection means to you is going a long way right now,” says Sumler.
#2 Make a video call
Thanks to technology workshops provided in Amica residences, some families were already connecting using video call apps like Skype, WhatsApp, FaceTime, Google Hangouts or Zoom. Now that every Amica residence has boosted its supply of mobile devices, and team members are providing tech support, even residents without a smartphone are seeing their loved ones on video calls — and loving it. A team member at Amica On The Avenue described how one senior’s face lit up completely when she used FaceTime for the first time to see her great-grandchildren.
#3 Connect seniors with their peers
Help connect your parents with their peers or community groups outside the family. Is there a fellow resident or friend whose company your mom enjoys? A church or other community group your dad is especially missing? Many community groups have gone online: connect with residence staff if your parent would like to join a virtual choir rehearsal, spiritual service, etc.
#4 Host a family dinner or game night online
Many families have arranged to have dinner together online to enjoy the social time they’re craving. If the senior in your life likes playing games, ask the residence staff to help you organize a video call to play together. Try games such as charades, 20 questions, karaoke or trivia.
#5 Connect Mom to a friendly voice
Seniors at Amica are getting additional support and enjoying friendly chats with volunteers thanks to the Amica Social Connection Line and Friendly Caller Program. Amica residents who call the Social Connection Line are connected with the welcoming voice of a volunteer team member. The line has been especially supportive for Amica residents who don’t have any family. Residents at high risk of feeling isolated are also getting daily calls from qualified volunteers, who reach out to proactively help those in need. The callers then check in with residence staff to identify the need for more follow-up, etc.
#6 Set goals together
“If you have a loved one who’s well, consider setting mini goals together, such as doing something physically active each day to boost the release of endorphins,” says Sumler. Seniors in their suites can stretch, perform stand-up-sit-downs or lift makeshift weights (such as soup cans or books). Or set a goal where you both agree to reach out to friends you haven’t spoken to in a while, then check in and share how those calls went. If your parent is accustomed to using a computer, you could both look at online tours together (get ideas in this listing of the best virtual tours of Canadian attractions for seniors) “It can motivate both of you to connect over a common goal,” says Sumler. “Whenever you can give your parents an incentive to think positively and focus on actions they can take to stay well, it can be helpful. It helps create a sense of control and purpose when so much is beyond our control right now.
#7 Change your opening line
If asking your loved one how they’re doing is sending you both into a downward spiral on every call, consider changing the opening question. “This is a challenging time for everyone, but reflecting on what we are grateful for, and what we are appreciating about our day, can spark more positive conversation,” says Sumler. You might ask, “What are five things that went well in your day today?” The answer doesn’t matter as much as the positive feelings and thoughts that come from intentionally looking at what’s going well, in spite of tough circumstances.
#8 Validate feelings
If your loved one is feeling very concerned, afraid or worried, let them express those feelings. If you shut them down, seniors may become withdrawn thinking no one wants to listen. “Remind yourself and your loved one that this is a challenging time for society and humankind. It’s OK to feel however they’re feeling,” says Sumler. If they’re upset during a call, give them space without trying to problem-solve. “You might say, ‘I understand how difficult this must be for you, and I’d like nothing more than to be there with you.” After validating their feelings, feel free to share some of yours to connect over common ground. It’s OK to admit you had a tough day on Wednesday and to share what you did to help improve your day, such as making a cup of tea or calling a friend. Or share what you both look forward to doing when this is all over.
#9 Arrange an outdoor visit
If you live nearby, come for a distant chat with your loved one on their balcony. Sumler recalls one resident smiling from her window as her grandchildren decorated the driveway with sidewalk chalk. Others have played tic tac toe on a sliding glass door using washable markers — Grandpa is on the inside, grandkids are on the outside. Families have gathered at a safe distance in parking lots to serenade their loved ones on their birthdays. Everyone in the residence — from residents to team members — gets a big lift from these expressions of love.