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As Coronavirus rages on, how to (safely) help elderly people

man and woman standing beside pedestrian lane, Image: Jimmy Chan
man and woman standing beside pedestrian lane, Image: Jimmy Chan

man and woman standing beside pedestrian lane, Image: Jimmy Chan

Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Practice social distancing. Older people are susceptible. This will get worse.

We don't know much about the novel coronavirus, but what we do know is scary. It’s also a little bit contradictory. How can an older person—or a person with an underlying condition that makes them more susceptible to the virus—stay away from people, and also get necessities like groceries and medication?

Besides washing hands, disinfecting surfaces, and isolating if you are sick, the Centers for Disease Control is urging people to “put distance between yourself and other people,” specifically, “about six feet.” Crowds are to be avoided, and even major cultural institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and DisneyWorld are closed. In an attempt to “flatten the curve”—to keep the coronavirus from spreading to so many people at once that hospitals become overwhelmed—some people are staying home entirely.

But for seniors and older people, this creates a paradox—it isn’t safe to be around other people, but it also isn’t safe to be without the things other people can provide. Hundreds of thousands of people have shared the Twitter thread from a woman who found an older woman in tears in a parking lot, terrified to go inside a store to get groceries, unable to go home without them.

Creating physical distance between people is supposed to keep people safe, but it puts older people in an almost impossible situation. We asked experts what to do about this—they told  Glamour that relatively young, healthy folks are in a position to help right now.

You can save lives in relative safety.

“This is a time when we must pull together as a community and help out those who are most at risk for serious illness, including the elderly and people with chronic medical conditions,” says Diane Meyer, a managing senior analyst at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who specializes in infectious disease epidemiology. “It is safe and, in fact, admirable, for healthy individuals to help out those higher-risk individuals.”

“The risk of adverse outcomes if infected is lower for younger people than it is for older people,” says Carolyn Cannuscio, director of research at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Public Health Initiatives, who specializes in community engagement and epidemiology. “I don’t want that to be interpreted as ‘Young people should just go about their business freely,’" she says. “People should engage only in essential emergency response functions and should limit all other social activities.”

Distributing meals and supplies to homeless, needy, and elderly people is absolutely an essential function, she explains. “Every social interaction carries risk of transmission of the virus. We all have to be super conscious and vigilant about reducing our social contacts. That said,” she adds, “there have to be people who respond to this emergency. We can’t get through this without that kind of support from select members of our community.”

Here’s how you can help.

The best way to help out while minimizing risk, Cannuscio says, is to “work through established organizations,” which will have protocols in place to keep volunteers and clients as safe as possible. One organization that should be on your radar is the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (N4A). They’re a national membership network of more than 600 agencies that service aging people. Through the Eldercare Locator on its site, it’s easy to connect to your local area agency, which will put you in touch with an organization in your community that needs support. “Our members on the ground in every community in the country right now are looking for volunteers to home-deliver meals, to drive people to the doctor and pharmacy and dialysis,” says Sandy Markwood, N4A’s CEO.

In New York, at Citymeals on Wheels, volunteer groups have been canceling—at the exact time when the nonprofit needs them the most. Beth Shapiro, the executive director of Citymeals, told  Glamour that the organization has already delivered 45,000 meals during the outbreak, and will deliver 100,000 more meals before Tuesday. “People have reached out and made themselves available which is really nice, but there has been some slippage,” she says. On Tuesday the group plans to start making 100,000 more meals. “For us right now, donations are also critical,” says Shapiro. “We’re relying on the goodness of New Yorkers.” At Citymeals on Wheels, she points out, 100% of every donation goes to meal preparation and delivery. “People who are reaching out to help are inspiring.”

At Meals on Wheels America, the nationwide service that delivers food to homebound people, pressure has increased as more and more seniors are confined to their homes, says Jenny Young, the group’s vice president of communications. On top of the normal clientele, “A lot of able-bodied seniors who are usually able to get out and make their own meals are now being asked to stay home, so we do expect to see more people reaching out looking for that service,” she says.

Young, healthy people are the safest to volunteer.

Here’s the painfully ironic thing: It’s not just that response to the pandemic calls for volunteers; it’s that the majority of people who normally volunteer are, themselves, especially susceptible. Because food delivery and volunteer driving usually take place during business hours, Amy Gotwals, director of public policy and legislative affairs at N4A explains, “the volunteer population for this program is heavily made up of older adults themselves who may need for their own safety to socially isolate.” Because of this, she says, “younger people could be a critical lifesaver here as older trained people need to pull back.”

“Two thirds of our volunteer base is 55 and older, and we want to be protecting everyone,” says Young. That’s why young, healthy volunteers are needed. “What’s best is to reach out to your local Meals on Wheels program and see what they need now.” All of the groups who spoke to  Glamour say they are following CDC instructions to create the safest possible circumstances for volunteers and clients. “People are shifting their traditional model,” says Young, of the 5,000 community Meals on Wheels chapters. “They might not need volunteers every day to drop off meals; they might be shifting to once a week, dropping off frozen or shelf-stable meals.”

Markwood and Gotwals at N4A say that even if you don’t get involved with a specific organization, knocking on your elderly neighbors’ doors and offering to pick up groceries or medication is a great idea. Just leave whatever you bring them on the porch or in front of their door, they advise. If you see an elderly person in need, even if you aren’t able to help them yourself, you can also use the Eldercare Locator to report that they are in need, and help will come, Markwood says. “Just overall I would encourage young people to reach out to older adults in their community—there is so much richness to be gained on either side of this equation.”

Loneliness is a health problem too, and you can help.

“Almost 30% of older adults live alone, so when they’re socially distancing themselves, they are, in fact, socially isolating,” Markwood says. For older people, many of whom are putting themselves in quarantine to avoid the virus, isolation presents its own danger. “We know the effects of social isolation and loneliness are very serious for health,” says Young, who notes that seniors who use Meals on Wheels are often already homebound, but now with the extra layer of not being able to receive visitors.

Many Meals on Wheels chapters have phone reassurance services, which allow volunteers to call homebound or quarantined seniors for check-ins and greetings. “Telephone reassurance programs create a lot of peace of mind, keep them reassured, and keep them connected to the community,” she says. If you have kids, decorating cards or writing letters that Meals on Wheels volunteers can take to seniors can also help.

Meyer says people should think carefully before visiting aging parents or grandparents. "If you are feeling sick or have had exposure to other known cases, I would recommend not visiting," she says. But isolation creates a serious challenge, too. “Social contact is incredibly important for the elderly and for any person that lives alone really,” says Cannuscio, who recommends limiting check-ins to phone calls and FaceTime. Her own mother is in isolation, right now. “Every night my eight-year-old and I FaceTime with her and either play a game, and my daughter will read a story to my mother, or my mother will read a story to my daughter,” she says.

Showing people in isolation that they are not alone is a public safety measure, she says. Sharing together over FaceTime or the phone can help.

“Read poetry. Read a story,” she advises. “Don’t read the news.”

Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour.  You can follow her on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on GLAMOUR

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