Everyone is talking about the coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, especially now that we have confirmed cases in Austin.
The talk especially gets worrisome when it comes to conversations with older adults, who experts say are most at risk to experience life-threatening symptoms. On Monday, the White House urged older adults to stay home and all Americans to avoid crowds larger than 10 people and avoid eating out.
If you have a loved one who is in this high-risk category, how do you have the conversation? What do you do if the conversation is with someone who also might be experiencing dementia?
Annette Juba, the deputy director of AGE of Central Texas, recommends starting from the same place you should start with kids or anyone: Check your own anxiety level.
"Create this atmosphere of calm and not panic," she says.
Juba says we need to acknowledge their anxieties and fears. "We all need someone to validate that we’re scared," she says.
Telling them, "Oh, don’t worry about this," doesn’t help over time, she says.
Try to avoid ruminating on the fear, though.
If they don’t have dementia, have a conversation that is more in-depth and scientific. You want to check where they are getting their information from and where you are getting yours. Make sure it’s known sources and not just an uncredited post on Facebook or other social media. A good place to start is CDC.gov or Austin Public Health.
You can also help seniors be aware of the many scams that are going around offering cures or immune system boosts.
If they ask questions and you don’t know the answers, it’s OK to say that you don’t know. You can help them look up some of the answers to their questions through those reliable sources.
The approach is different when you have someone with dementia.
Juba says if they don’t have a concept of what is going on, you don’t need to introduce the topic. In AGE’s senior day programs, for example, staff members are doing things like turning off the news.
"Once we start getting into later stages of the disease, we can turn a situation where we’re trying to be helpful into one where we could disturb the person immensely," says Delia Jevier, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association Capital of Texas Chapter.
If they do know something is happening, they might understand the concept of it being a flu, and you can explain it in those terms, Juba says.
Look for increased confusion, because that can also be a sign of illness.
You also can help seniors with their hand-washing techniques. Demonstrate good hand washing, remind them to do it and help them with it just like you might help with other hygiene tasks. "It’s not unreasonable for the caregiver to practice those things with (them) without mentioning why," Jevier says.
You can help seniors by knowing what medications they take and making sure they have extra, as well as medical supplies. Have a backup plan if they should run out. Also, make sure they have enough nonperishable foods.
Adult day cares might need to close, so have a backup plan for loved ones if that happens.
Limitations on visits to see them might be put into place if they live in a different house or in a senior residence. Let them know that you will always maintain contact. It just might be that you will need to video chat with them, talk to them on the phone or send cards and write letters.
At AGE of Central Texas, Juba says, they are talking about how to do their exercise classes virtually, and they are already restricting visitors and volunteers.
AGE has also offered virtual resources on its website to help families as it limits access to its offices and suspends programs. AGEofCentralTX.org.
At Family Eldercare, they are working to expand the Lifetime Connections Without Walls program, which offers social and educational sessions through phone calls.
Encourage everyone, including seniors, to do things like go outside and take a walk, so that "you don’t feel like you’re retreating from the world," Juba says.
Family Eldercare is encouraging friends and family members to reach out and check on their parents and elderly neighbors.
"It’s important not to emotionally isolate at this time," Cheryl Young, director of counseling at Family Eldercare, said in an email.
People are starting to ask how they can help their older neighbors. Juba suggests things like calling them to stay in touch and dropping off supplies at their doorsteps to help them, without direct contact. AGE and Family Eldercare both have programs for seniors to get calls. AGE also has a program that brings medical supplies to seniors’ homes. They always need volunteers.