With the new coronavirus targeting older adults, how can they best cope and how can their adult children help them?
Brian Carpenter, who is a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., has given those questions a lot of thought. Dr. Carpenter is a geropsychologist, which means he specializes in treating older adults. He’s also the son of parents ages 77 and 78, who live in upstate New York.
“I’ll admit I’ve been one of those ‘bossy’ adult children who has lectured his parents about social-distancing and hygiene, but have also shared recommendations about stress management, staying physically active while at home, how to stay engaged intellectually. So I hope I’m practicing what I’m preaching!” he says.
In general, older adults are resilient and shouldn’t be treated as frail and helpless, even if the pandemic has taken its greatest toll on those 65 and older, says Dr. Carpenter, who is 55. “They’ve developed a series of strategies and skills over their lifetime to help them maintain their well-being even in the face of chronic illness and life transitions like retirement,” he says.
Geropsychology is a relatively new specialty in the field of psychology and was developed to meet the special needs of older adults dealing with the normal aging process and facing illness, loss, and isolation. The field is relatively small—about 4% of all psychologists are geropsychologists, says Dr. Carpenter, president of the Society of Clinical Geropsychology, which has assembled a coronavirus resource page with information for older adults and their family members.
In an edited interview, Dr. Carpenter discusses how older adults can cope during the pandemic.
What are your concerns about the new coronavirus and its impact on older adults and their mental health?
There are two things going on. Older adults understand that exposure to the coronavirus places them at greater risk than younger people. So there is a higher level of threat and sense of worry among older adults because of that.
The second issue involves social connection. There are restrictions in long-term care facilities about visitors, and recommendations for older adults in the community to keep physical distance from family members and friends. We do worry about social isolation and loneliness, which can have direct physical consequences on our biology and reduce immune functioning.
Can technology help people feel more connected and less isolated?
We are still trying to figure out whether and how technology is going to be a solution to this. I know a lot of older adults who group chat and make video conference calls that younger people are using to stay in touch. But there will be a subset of older adults who will not have access to or know how to use those technologies.
What can adult children do to help?
I would love it if family members would ask their parents: How do you want to stay in touch? How often? What time? By what mode? What do you want to talk about? What do you not want to talk about? Just asking can be informative and empowering.
Are phone calls or video calls better?
Those two technologies serve different purposes and might be most effectively used in combination. There are times when you really want to see someone and check in on someone and see how they look. There are other times when a very brief phone call to ask “How are you doing? Do you need anything?” is enough. In terms of therapy, video therapy is more beneficial than telephone therapy and telephone therapy is more beneficial than email. All are more effective than nothing at all.
Is there anything people shouldn’t talk about?
No, but I think you want to be deliberate. You don’t want to call up and talk about all the alarming statistics you read all morning. I would be deliberate with people of all ages.
How can you protect your parents without infantilizing them?
We’re going to see a lot of interesting negotiations in families about who is doing what for whom and why. Having an explicit conversation about that would be helpful. Adult children may be trying to be helpful by offering support and services. Maybe that’s to protect their parents.
But maybe it’s also to allay their own anxiety and worry and give them a sense they are doing something helpful. There’s nothing wrong with that. But they need to pause and ask, “Am I doing this for my parents or for me or for both of us?” Be honest about it.
What about older adults who don’t have family?
This is a time when community—large and small—can step up to help support older adults who don’t have family. The community in the apartment buildings where someone lives, or a next-door neighbor. The communities of social service organizations and institutions, who can identify a person in need.
We have a student organization on our campus, a local chapter of “Adopt a Grandparent,” where students do volunteer work with residents at nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. Our students are no longer here in St. Louis, but the organization is talking with administrators to see how our students can send pictures of themselves, cards, letters, and videos to stay in touch with them.
How does the uncertainty around the virus play into concerns and anxiety?
We’re learning new things every day. We don’t know about the trajectory of the illness. We don’t know how much of what we are experiencing now will disappear. Or how much will become a new kind of normal. That creates a degree of uncertainty that leaves everyone wondering about the future.
How can older adults manage those unknowns?
One way is to focus on what we do know: That the virus is highly contagious. That most people who get the virus recuperate fine, although some people are at higher risk for serious consequences. That there are things people can do to protect themselves and their community. And that there are many, many people available to help anyone who is feeling stressed and anxious, for whatever reason. Family and friends can help, as can medical, mental health, and service providers throughout the community.
If older adults can keep their focus on what they can do to promote their physical and mental well being, that can help reduce anxiety. It can also be helpful for older adults to think about what they can do for other people—make a phone call, send an email, yell down the hall to another friend who is self-quarantining. Again, a focus on what we all can do can help reverse the kind of pessimism and hopelessness that’s at the root of so many mental-health symptoms.
What do older adults need most in these uncertain times?
That’s a big question. The older adults I talk to want to know they are not alone. They want to know people are there for them if they need them. Some of them want to know this will end. They know it will be different after this is over, and there will be a new normal.
I think there are also older adults who recognize this as one event in a life that has unfolded over many decades. They take more of philosophical perspective. In that way, they have the opportunity to help younger people think about it in that way, too.
Tips for Handling the Crisis
Structure your days. Try to find a routine that is as normal as possible. Don’t stay in bed. Don’t oversleep. Get up. Take a shower. Make your bed. Set your goals for the day and develop a plan to meet them. Don’t forget to schedule activities that you enjoy.
Stay in touch. Use whatever medium is most comfortable to you. If you don’t want people to see you, stick to the phone and skip the video calls. Reach out to people who don’t have family. If you can’t call, email or text. Any communication is better than none.
Stay positive. Express gratitude. Pay attention to small joys and pleasures. Create positive experiences for yourself during the day.
Limit coronavirus news intake. Pick a couple of trusted news sources and one or two times during the day to check on them. Don’t leave the news on in the background and shut screens off an hour before going to bed.
Maintain the basics: Exercise, eat healthy foods and get plenty of sleep.
Source: Brian Carpenter, professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., and president of the Society of Clinical Geropsychology