Is life in quarantine sustainable for seniors?

By Sara Hanau | July 27, 2020
Child on a virtual call with grandmother

Virtual play dates with Grandma are the new norm for many families.

By Sara Hanau, a contributing writer for Sharp Health News and a senior digital producer for Sharp HealthCare.

Thanks to COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, my senior parents have now been quarantined for 128 days. My dad, a self-proclaimed homebody, has embraced the solitude - streaming Neil Young videos and rediscovering Ben & Jerry's. My mother, on the other hand, is losing her ever-loving mind.

She misses pickleball, book club and French class. She's tired of takeout, Netflix and relying on Wi-Fi to talk to her grandkids. In short, she wants out - and waits with baited breath for the miracle medicine that will let her rejoin society.

To me, this personality combo couldn't be more ideal. My dad keeps my mom from breaking the rules, and she returns the favor by dragging him on neighborhood walks and long dinners on the patio.

"This is a strange time for everyone, but especially older adults," says Dr. Rebecca Smith, a board-certified family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. "Their age puts them in an at-risk category for complications should they contract the virus. At the same time, isolation can cause anxiety and depression. The trick is finding balance."

The question is what does that balance look like? How far can at-risk people push the boundaries, if at all? More importantly, how long can this "new normal" be sustained?

Be smart, stay safe

Dr. Smith's biggest message, to both my parents and older adults everywhere, is yes, this "new normal" is both necessary and sustainable. Necessary because staying at home keeps everyone safe and healthy. Sustainable because being homebound doesn't need to be a bad thing.

"I'd love to say that seniors can start opening their social circles again, but the safest course of action remains avoiding in-person interactions. This means sticking to county guidelines, making smart choices when leaving the home and finding new ways to connect."

Public health officials recommend that you:

  • Stay home when you are sick.

  • If you leave your home, wear a face covering and maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from others.

  • Avoid touching your face, especially your nose, eyes and mouth.

  • Cover your mouth with a tissue or your elbow when coughing and sneezing, and then throw away the tissue and wash your hands.

  • Frequently wash your hands - at least 20 seconds with hot water and soap - or use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.

  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces with disinfectant wipes or sprays.

  • Have a plan for yourself and your family if someone were to get sick.

Bring the outside in
Malls and spin classes may be temporarily out of the question, but there are ways to get creative about bringing the outside world in. According to Dr. Smith, it is simply a matter of perspective.

While you adjust to life during a pandemic, the world around you is adjusting too. Dr. Smith suggests trying to bring your favorite things into your home and, for the moment, "replace in-person interactions with an opportunity to ask for help from those around you who may be in a less risky category."

Some ways to optimize isolation include:

  • Trying something on your own that you previously paid someone to do, such as washing your dog in lieu of the groomer, or dyeing your hair.

  • Buying clothing online, trying them on at home and using free shipping on returns.

  • Brushing up on your technological skills by completing common errands online. This includes online bills and banking, and checking in with your doctor about virtual visits.

  • Creating fun kitchen challenges that use pantry-friendly ingredients or experimenting with healthy produce offered by farmers market delivery boxes. Healthy eating is vital while spending lots of time at home.

  • Reaching out to friends, neighbors or family members who could do shopping or deliveries for you. It keeps you out of the stores and gives you an opportunity to see their faces.

Embrace the 'new social'
Relying on technology as a social tool may seem like a second-rate alternative, but the world has quickly discovered new ways to keep it fun and interesting. And for those who are truly craving those personal connections, staying smart and 6 feet apart - preferably outdoors - can offer an occasional reprieve.

"Seniors should minimize any in-person interactions," Dr. Smith says. "However, when online isn't personal enough, an outdoor meeting is pretty low-risk, especially if it involves people within the same housing unit or social circle. Of course, it hinges upon everyone following social distancing, face covering and hygiene guidelines."

Some ways to keep socialization safe and interesting include:

  • Online game nights. Classic board games like Trivial Pursuit lend themselves well to distance gaming, while some apps have been designed specifically for video chats.

  • Group dinners. Setting up a video call and timing simultaneous dinners is a good way to feel like a group is dining together. Choosing dual delivery from a favorite restaurant can add that "out to dinner" feel.

  • Educational opportunities. Getting kids to sit still for calls isn't always easy, so try organizing a learning activity - from cooking a recipe together to teaming up on a craft.

  • Groups and clubs. Many clubs that ordinarily meet up in person have moved to an online platform. Try finding an organized book club or a group that discusses a hobby or interest.

  • Letter writing. The age of pen pals seems like a thing of the past, but thanks to the pandemic, more and more people are forging letter-writing relationships with friends near and far.

  • Neighborhood strolls. Staying active is vital to your physical and mental well-being. Taking a walk is good for your heart, and can connect you to your neighborhood.

  • Outdoor meetups. Outdoor interactions should be infrequent, as there is a small risk associated with them. Keep it short, wear a face covering, stay at least 6 feet apart, and wash your hands and face covering thoroughly after the interaction.

"It's hard to say when a COVID-19 vaccine will be available," Dr. Smith says. "Seniors are surprisingly resilient, however, and with some adjustments to their habits and a little help from others, they can still thrive during this pandemic."

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