Five Ways to Stay Connected When Visiting is Not an Option
We’ve now all got plenty of experience living our lives with social-distancing protocols. But, as many of us are deep in winter and have fallen into routines, it’s important to think about whether you’re connecting often enough with your older loved ones, especially those living alone or in care communities.
Hopefully by now they’ve been fully vaccinated, or at least are scheduled. You might have even been vaccinated yourself. But until approximately 80% of the country is vaccinated (and none of the new variants present as vaccine-resistant), we’re going to be living with some type of social distancing for the foreseeable future. Here are five ways in which you can help connect with older adults and help them feel connected.
1. Tech: Cell Phone for Older Adults
If your older loved one has a smartphone, I’m guessing you’ve at least attempted to FaceTime with them. And if they’re living in a care community without their own smartphone, there’s a good chance that the community organizes video calls on a regular basis.
But there are other tools at your disposal as well. If you haven’t thought about getting your loved one a cell phone, now might be the time. I suggest that you check out some simple-to-use cellphones that are designed specifically for older adults like GreatCall’s Jitterbug. This phone has large, intuitive buttons (and only a few of them!) Its streamlined features help to prevent users from getting confused or “lost” in its tech. My grandma had this phone for years and, though it was her first cellphone, she mastered it enough to be able to receive and make calls. She also felt real cool in the activity room when her grandson called.
Caregiving Tip: Make sure to remind caregivers to keep the phone plugged in at night. We even posted signs in her room with this reminder, as not all residents had phones and there were always new caregivers at the community. We lost her charger more than once (as items like this have a tendency to walk away); so I suggest adding a nametag (ours was just on a piece of duct tape) to the charger and phone. I’d also ask the caregivers to clean the phone with an anti-bacterial wipe at least a few times a week.
2. Tech: Tablets/Communication Hubs
Even before the pandemic hit, we got my grandma a Grandcare Touchsceen. It proved to be a wonderful tool for us to communicate with her (and at times her caregivers) as well as to monitor her. (Full disclosure: Grandcare is now available for purchase at JoeAndBella.com).
It’s essentially a tablet, like an iPad, but with functionality specifically for older adults. It can conduct video and audio calls along with many other features; for us, one of its advantages was that we could simply “pop” on in, without my grandmother needing in anyway to answer the call.
Because of our personal experience with this product, we really wanted it on the site. And, as of this week, we’re pleased to be able to offer it to our customers. As my grandmother’s dementia progressed and with the lockdown in place, GrandCare became a lifeline to my grandmother for us. Although we knew she was well cared for, not physically being there for her really tough. GrandCare literally gave us eyes into her room and everyday life. We could check on her when she was waking up and going to sleep. We could speak with her and her caregivers easily. GrandCare gave us the peace of mind that she was only a click away. And when we weren't using it to check in on her, the screen displayed family pictures and messages for my grandmother, which we'd continually update, just like an interactive photo frame! (Plus, it has a range of other features, like games and music, that weren’t quite for us.)
There are other great products out there, like Google Home and Amazon Alexa that rely on voice command. With a little practice older adults can master these tools as well. Just make sure that your care community is able to add another device to its wifi.
3. Conduct “Guided” Phone Calls or Play a Game or Activity
Calls with my grandma during the pandemic often were quick. Like really quick. Especially early on when her community was in quarantine, she wasn’t particularly talkative. And, since I was in quarantine as well, I struggled to come up with any news to share with her. So, here’s what I suggest, based on my own trial and error. Instead of simply phoning your loved one on a whim, plan your talk about beforehand. This can be as simple as taking one or two minutes to quickly jot down a few things in your life that they might be interested in hearing. (I’d usually remember the funniest thing my dog did since my last call, or some cute story about my niece and nephew.) You can also write down a few key “learning objectives” for the call: How is she physically feeling? How is she emotionally feeling? Any changes from our previous call? Is she bored? What activities is she doing? What did she eat today? Did she like what she ate? Did she watch the news? What is she looking forward to tomorrow? Does she need anything? Is she comfortable? Are her clothes in good condition? Does she have enough bathroom supplies? What has she been thinking about?
If you or your loved one is not up for that much chitchat, you can play an activity or game on the phone. I used to play “20 questions” with her, but the answer was always a family member. Or I would have her think of one of her favorite (or least favorite) trips, and I would guess. (During her heyday, she and my grandfather loved to travel, and she loved to recount her adventures in detail.)
4. Leverage Already-Created Guided Conversations with Older Adults
There are of course, plenty of other topics to discuss other than their current care needs. (They might not pick up as often if that’s all you talk about!) Many older adults like to reflect on their life and particularly like to share with their family milestones and successes. Engaging in deep, reflective conversations with older adults about their life, particularly those struggling with dementia, is important for their brain health. At Joe & Bella, we offer gift boxes that can be sent to older adults. (More on these later.) But one of our gift boxes smartly comes with a “storybook journal” that is perfect for these conversations. It includes a series of biographical questions that you can ask. Some people like to approach this as an official “interview” and record the answers for posterity. As great as this is for the older adult to share and reflect on their own life, it’s a wonderful way for a child, grandchild, friend or caregiver to learn more about them, and be able to record those answers so they can be reread and remembered later. Others have used this journal more informally, as a jumping-off point for a phone conversation. They might choose one or two questions and let those guide their call. Either way, this journal helps to structure conversations so you have plenty to talk about.
5. Send a Gift
My grandma wasn’t much of a talker over the past few years. Even when I would visit her, there were plenty of times she didn’t say too much of simply feel like talking. Instead, I’d often just sit next to her while she worked on her needlepoint, or a crossword puzzle, or participated in whatever activity was going on in the community. Although during those moments we didn’t interact much, I know she appreciated I was there. She’d sometimes squeeze my hand, or just give a quick look, remembering that her grandson was next to her.
But with visitation limited during Covid times, this type of interaction is so much more difficult to pull off. So instead of forcing the issue with my grandma to join a call or FaceTime with me, I would just send her small gifts and goodies. Even if I couldn’t be close to her, my presence could still be felt.
That’s why, at Joe & Bella, one of the first products we curated was a gift box. One version of our gift box (there are a few different options on our site) includes the storybook journal that I mentioned above. But it also includes a picture frame and some other fun surprises including activities, sweet treats and other keepsakes.
I would hype up the arrival of the package on phone calls or FaceTimes so she knew it was on its way, giving her something to look forward to. I loved building excitement for her. It’s so important that she’s looking beyond the day, with something positive on the horizon. And when the journal arrived, it gave her a purposeful project -- and something else we could talk about.