Opinion: It could be your grandmother: How you can help older adults navigate the pandemic

Check in with them and offer to pick up groceries and medicines. Call to say hello. Teach them how to use the internet to communicate with their doctor.

It’s not a pretty picture— older people you know, used to going out, playing bridge, helping youngsters learn to read, attending concerts— suddenly sitting alone in a bedroom or kitchen, wondering if their food will last, filled with questions, with no one nearby to answer, lacking the computer skills to find vital information, maybe running out of medication, unable to reach their health provider and perhaps  suspecting they might have COVID-19,

Health experts recommend that during this pandemic, adults over 65 years old use “social distancing”— staying away from groups of more than 10 people and six feet away from anyone— to avoid contracting the disease. On Sunday, Gov. Gavin Newsom put it more strongly. He indicated (but did not order) that all people over 65 self-isolate at home.  If seniors follow that advice—and they should— that isolation could be hurtful to many who live alone. Research has shown that over time it could sicken or even kill them.

The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration cautions that loneliness can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. According to a recent article in the New York Times, feelings of isolation and loneliness can increase the likelihood of depression, high blood pressure, and death from heart disease. They can also affect the immune system’s ability to fight infection — a fact that’s especially relevant during a pandemic.

Fortunately, there are things we can do to help. Ashby Village has been serving the East Bay for ten years. Organizations like ours —hundreds of “Villages” across the country – are uniquely positioned to step up during these extraordinary times. You can’t, of course, build a community the day before you find out you need one.  Fortunately, these close-knit networks of elders, who remain in the neighborhoods they know and love, backed up by carefully trained volunteers, have taken years to build a sturdy virtual community—not a “where we live” but “how we live”—strongly prepared for when a crisis hits.

Villages like Ashby Village were established to help older adults remain in their homes and thrive. Our volunteers go through extensive training, to provide transportation to medical appointments and grocery shopping, help with light housework and repairs, offer elders technology support, read aloud and sometimes, most important of all, provide companionship and social interaction.

During the pandemic, meeting those needs will be challenging and we are working to be sure that every one of our members feels they have a place to turn for solace and support while protecting their health and the health of volunteers.

Here are some things all of us can consider doing to help:

  • Check in with elders in your neighborhood. Ask them if they need groceries, medications or other supplies. Even a short phone call just to say “hello” can make a difference.
  • Ask if they have questions they haven’t been able to get answered and offer to read them (over the phone) information posted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and your local health department.
  • Find out if they are having trouble reaching their medical providers. See if you can help by teaching them how to use a doctor or dentist’s portal.
  • Sign up as a volunteer with a Village near you or another senior-support organization to help during this time, including by offering pre-vetted easy walks to get outdoors with other people, at a safe distance.
  • Volunteer to share information about services that deliver groceries, medications, pet supplies and other items. We have information on our website (ashbyvillage.org)) about some of these providers.
  • Above all, remember that support in a pandemic is not a one-way street. As elders, many of our members—from retired medical professionals to retired librarians—have skill sets of significant use in crises.  Plus we’re old and wise enough to know how to use collective intelligence to strengthen a community. Some of us have even been through this kind of experience before.  At times like these, that makes us uniquely prepared to effectively engage all hands on deck.

Andy Gaines is the executive director of Ashby Village, a Berkeley-based non-profit organization that helps older adults stay in their homes and communities and thrive. Andra Lichtenstein is the chair of the Ashby Village board of directors.