Social Gerontologist Maria Brown Shares Advice on Caring for Aging Parents During a Pandemic

From phone calls to grocery shopping, there are several ways you can help older family members overcome the challenges of social distancing.

A Syracuse Story by Lisa Maresca originally published on April 16, 2020.

Maria Brown Portrait
Maria Brown

As people all over the world deal with the coronavirus pandemic, many wonder how to care for aging parents. Adults aged 60 or older, especially those with severe chronic medical conditions, are at higher risk for more serious coronavirus illness and death.

Maria Brown, an assistant research professor at the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics and faculty associate in the University’s Aging Studies Institute, offers advice on how to help care for aging parents or family members.

Stay in Touch

Calling or video chatting is a great way to comply with social distancing recommendations while also checking in with aging parents. For those who don’t have computers or smart devices, Brown recommends increasing the frequency of telephone calls. During these calls, you can ascertain both how they are doing with the isolation and what kinds of assistance they need, as their feelings and needs will change over time.

“If they do have smart devices, you can help them download and set up apps for video calls with you and with other members of the family,” says Brown. “In some instances, such as when you and your parents have the same type of smart device, like an iPhone, a video call can be as simple as a regular call, and all they have to do is answer the call as they normally would. In other cases, they may need an app like Skype or Google Duo.”

Schedule specific times of day to call so they have something to look forward to throughout the day.

Grocery Shop

Brown recommends offering to do the grocery shopping for your parents and carrying the bags to their doorstep. Alternatively, you could help them place online orders through delivery services such as Instacart that can be delivered to their home.

Watch Out for Scams

Trying times can bring out the best in people. Unfortunately, they can also bring out the worst. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued guidelines for avoiding coronavirus-related scams. Talk to your parents about these scams and share some of the FTC’s tips:

  • Don’t respond to texts, emails or calls about checks from the government.
  • Ignore online offers for vaccines or home test kits.
  • Hang up on robocalls.
  • Do your homework when it comes to donations.

Encourage Older Adults to Stay Busy

Remaining at home all day poses challenges for many people, but it can pose greater risks for older adults. Brown says that the inactivity that can come with being confined to the home can cause declines in physical health and in physical abilities. “Older adults are also at greater risk of developing depression in social isolation, and their elevated risk for bad outcomes from this virus can cause higher levels of anxiety and lead to sleep difficulties,” Brown says.

There are plenty of mental and physical activities your parents can engage in while at home, including reading books, playing board games or going for walks.

Seek Help from a Distance, If Necessary

If you don’t live near your aging parents, you can assist them from afar by reaching out to their local friends or neighbors who can connect with them in person (using social distancing rules, like visiting through a door or window, or standing 6 feet or more apart outside) and help you monitor how they are doing.

In cases where parents need more support than you can provide, you may want to reach out to their county’s Area Agency on Aging (AAA). Their local AAA’s homepage should have a message specific to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly if their county health department has a stay-at-home order in place.

Communicate Thoughtfully

In some cases, older parents may be resistant to staying at home or following social distancing directives. This can be a challenging scenario, particularly if your message is in conflict with other messages they’re receiving about the seriousness of the coronavirus threat to them as individuals. For some elderly parents, the effectiveness of your message may depend on their comfort level with having others run errands for them, and on whether they have family nearby to provide support or must instead rely on strangers.

How you communicate with an elderly parent who doesn’t feel at risk really depends on your relationship with that parent and the type of information that appeals to their knowledge level and personality. In families with multiple adult children or adult grandchildren, it might be better to have family members with whom the parent has historically been more open to challenging conversations be the ones to deliver this message; or, depending on the parent, it may work better to have a consistent message coming from multiple family members.

For older adults who see themselves as healthy and have a good understanding of health information, consider presenting them with the statistics like the age distribution of people who have died from the coronavirus.

For Aging Parents with Cognitive, Visual or Hearing Challenges

Brown also suggests reviewing Claire Pendergrast’s tips for communicating with older adults experiencing hearing loss, vision impairment or cognitive disabilities. Pendergrast, a Ph.D. student in sociology at Syracuse University, offers concrete advice.

For individuals with cognitive challenges:

  • Repeat essential information.
  • Use plain language.
  • Focus on important meaning of the information.

For individuals with visual challenges:

  • Make information easy to see and read by using a large font, high contrast and spacing between lines.
  • Reduce the amount of text.
  • Provide visual and audio information when possible.

For individuals with hearing challenges:

  • Limit background noise.
  • Speak clearly with more volume.

If your parents fall into the vulnerable population category, following these tips should help ease the difficulty of caring for them during this challenging time.