Being present for older adults in 2021 requires forethought and an understanding of how the pandemic has changed many aspects of daily life. Many older adults are emerging from a long period of isolation. Yet they remain concerned about their safety, as well as the safety of loved ones. When all parties are vaccinated, a hug goes a long way.
“When possible, physical touch is very much appreciated. Messages of love, that you, a family member, or grandchildren are all right, especially because of the way you were raised, are helpful,” said Dr. Doug Wilson, medical director for the palliative care service at Queen of the Valley Medical Center and a family physician at OLE Health.
Wilson suggested limiting the amount of time spent on “COVID talk.”
“Older adults especially may have lost friends and family members to the illness. Talking about the pandemic may cause them anxiety. It could also bring up other stressful topics, like politics. If older adults bring up COVID or another topic that you find difficult, it’s OK to distract and move the conversation to another topic,” said Wilson.
Wilson said many people have loved ones who express ideas their children and grandchildren may find challenging.
“Just like some of our elders had to deal with ancestors who would express support for slavery or other violence, we have an opportunity to find ways to express love and affection for elders who may share perspectives we find deeply problematic,” said Wilson.
Wilson said visitors to an older adult’s home or care facility should focus on positive things that “touch their emotions or souls.”
“Talking about the arts or anything they did in their lives that will live on as a legacy is great. These things are reassuring. Remember that as the body ages, people are no longer able to do the things they once did. They want to connect to the part of themselves that is youthful,” said Wilson.
Naomi Dreskin-Anderson, a Napa-based attorney who focuses on elder law issues, said it is a good time to try to minimize family disputes, like arguments over an inheritance.
“Older adults have been more isolated during the pandemic. Adult children haven’t been as able to visit. I am seeing adult children expressing more anxiety about people taking advantage of their parents. They’re looking for ways to take more control over their parents’ lives. This results in stress for everyone,” said Dreskin-Anderson.
Dreskin-Anderson advises gradually lengthening visits after all parties have been vaccinated.
“Family counseling and mediation can be helpful too,” said Dreskin-Anderson.
Dreskin-Anderson is a Napa Board of Supervisors’ appointee to the Napa County Commission on Aging and co-chair of the Healthy Aging Population Initiative (HAPI). HAPI represents the concerns of elders with Live Healthy Napa County, a public-private partnership to improve the health of all Napa County residents.
Dreskin-Anderson said the Napa County Commission on Aging has advocated for funding activities for older adults through the pandemic. The Commission has focused on meeting needs regarding meal programs, community outreach programs, virtual events, and “telephone reassurance,” calls to increase interaction and fight isolation.
“One of the issues we’re still addressing is the digital divide, the concerns the older population has with accessing technology. We’re also working to increase the amount of supportive housing in Napa County. Our goal is to help people remain where they live. This allows them to age comfortably in place,” said Dreskin-Anderson.
Megan Dozler, a Napa-based music therapist and founder of Core3 Harmony & Wellness Services, LLC, advocates encouraging older adults to engage in communal interactions like tai chi, exercise, and live drumming. She said these activities relieve stress related to the pandemic.
Dozler acknowledged adults in their 70s and beyond come from a generation in which events and socialization were held in groups.
“Think about how dances were organized, often around live music. People also enjoyed listening to music together around a record player or through a radio program. Establishing a sense of connection helps older people thrive,” said Dozler.
Dozler said she is easing concern about group activities by offering short classes with fewer people
“This helps everyone feel safe and get back into normal routines and activities. Having a real person there is important, as many older adults dislike watching videos. I ask for sign-ups to see who’s interested,” said Dozler.
Dozler said it takes an effort even for professionals to draw older adults out of their rooms.
“Before vaccines were available, staff required residents of assisted living facilities to stay in their own rooms or within a limited area. Even if teachers were allowed to come, residents lacked the motivation to engage. Residents are hesitant to go back to what they were doing before the pandemic. During this slow transition back to group interaction, many facilities require self-screening healthcare checks prior to conducting groups. We’re looking at new activities to re-energize them,” said Dozler.
Rob Weiss, executive director of Mentis, Napa’s oldest non-profit and a provider of mental health services throughout Napa Valley, is drawing on the lessons learned through Healthy Minds, Healthy Aging. This comprehensive program, which has been in existence for over 10 years, supports adults over 60.
“Our approach is to intervene early. That reduces the need for more intensive intervention later on. Right now we’re providing short-term therapy and mental health case management over Zoom and by telephone,” said Weiss.
Weiss said Healthy Minds, Healthy Aging, like all of Mentis Napa’s programs, offers bilingual services in English and Spanish. Weiss said the pandemic posed significant challenges for outreach.
“When lockdown happened last spring, a lot of people backed off from phone appointments. More have come back, gradually. Another thing that’s helped is offering services to caregivers of older adults. They can get burned out. We offer programs to support them too,” said Weiss.
Young adults can be part of a larger solution. In April 2021, Mentis Napa launched a new pilot program called Bridging the Years. The program connects older adults at Rohlff’s Manor in Napa with teens from Napa Valley College and five Napa County high schools, American Canyon High, Napa High, Vintage High, New Tech High, and Justin Siena High.
The teens, who are between the ages of 15 and 19, call their older adult conversational partner once a week for six weeks. Both the teens and older adults have relationship coaches supporting their interactions.
“Our program invigorates and energizes older adults while grounding and centering teenagers. Long-term plans include county-wide expansion and in-person multigenerational activities when it’s safe again to do so,” said Jeni Olsen, prevention director of Mentis Napa.
The teens participating in Bridging the Years are all members of the Mentis Teen Council, a diverse youth leadership group that empowers teens to care for themselves, others, and the community.
Samira Flores, 18 and a senior at Vintage High School said her advice for interacting with older adults is to be patient and having a positive attitude.
“They can sense if you don’t give a conversation your full energy. I recommend communicating through music, smiles, and body language,” said Flores.
Flores said the pandemic has made everyone extremely lonely.
“In my first call, both me and the older adult I called started rambling. We were so excited. One thing I learned is the pandemic has helped us understand each other. My conversation partner talked to me about school and staying home, what I was going through. They had empathy for me,” said Flores.
Kalaya Jones, 18 and a senior at Napa High School, is also the vice president of Teens Connect, a Mentis youth wellness and prevention program. Teen Connect that supports mental health and wellness among teens in Napa County. Jones said she suggests accepting each individual as their own person.
“You want to go at a pace that is comfortable for them. My thought is to approach this in a gentle and kind manner. I will reassure them that I’m there for them. I’ll explain that I might not fully understand what they’re going through but I’m willing to listen,” said Jones.
Jones added she has learned more about encouraging self-expression by working with Teens Connect to hold “virtual wellness cafés” for local middle school and high school students during school hours.
“Doing a little bit for mental wellness every day ends up benefiting everyone so much. I look forward to having conversations where we both say, “OK. We will get through this,” ” said Jones.