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How to Stay Connected in a Time of Social Distancing

elderly man working on his laptop

Social distancing is a phrase new to many of us that is essential to ensuring that the most vulnerable to COVID-19—older adults and those with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease—stay healthy. Social distancing contributes to “slowing the transmission of COVID-19 and reducing illness and death,” according to the CDC.

Extra care and caution abound in this era of COVID-19. Working with older adults, we find ourselves employing our best creative thinking to find new ways to serve and support them remotely, despite this challenge. We know the value of engagement, even at a distance, on personal health and well-being.

Assisted living and memory care communities, as well as adult family homes and nursing homes, have implemented strict protocols to protect the health of their residents, just as area hospitals have done to protect patients and staff. And most older adults are staying close to home, limiting their time with others, as recommended by experts in public health. As a result, we are employing new ways of making essential connections. This is also a good time to exercise some self-care and compassion.

Staying connected—at a distance

In a recent UW News article entitled “Staying connected—at a distance,” Jonathan Kanter, University­ of Washington research associate professor of psychology and director of the Center for the Science of Social Connection, shared that “Any connection is better than no connection.” He goes on to reflect that “Now is the time to reach out and connect however you can. It may sound dramatic, but it really helps. Let people know how much you care about them—you’ll feel better for doing so.”

Kanter and a colleague, Nicole McNichols, a lecturer in the UW Department of Psychology, shared the following tips for staying connected—at a distance:

  • Stay active, or just get out in nature
  • Help someone else—in ways big and small, inside your community and out
  • Call or FaceTime friends and family—don’t just text or post on social media
  • Stick to routines you enjoy—they make the world feel more predictable
  • Avoid looking at the news all day—read a book or watch a show, just for fun
  • Keep a journal
  • Exercise self-compassion—treat yourself like you would a friend

Everything old is new again

Remember how we communicated with other people a few decades ago? Here are some tips:

  • Good old-fashioned phone calls. Because one-on-one visits are discouraged at this time, make regular phone calls. Phones are a satisfying way to connect with friends and family, near and far. Hearing a familiar voice on the other end of the phone, when the community in which a friend or family member may be a resident has strictly limited visitors, can add joy and engagement to a quiet, at times lonely day. Engage in small talk, storytelling, and singing. What sparks joy in your loved one? Ask open-ended questions to get the conversation rolling. It could be talking about recipes and favorite foods, travels, grandchildren, or music. If the technology is available, connecting through Zoom conferencing, Skype or FaceTime can be great fun.
  • Snail mail. Just like with phone calls, everyone loves to receive mail. Send greeting cards and postcards, add a personal note, tuck a short poem or picture in with the card, and bring some additional sunshine to your loved one’s day. Do this regularly. I have a friend who moved to New Zealand for work. His mom lived in an assisted living community in Wisconsin. Jeff made it a point to send her a postcard or two a week to keep them connected between phone calls and visits. It was also his way of sharing his Southern Hemispheres adventures with loving notes and colorful pictures from his new residence.
  • Conversation over a cup of tea on the porch or a short walk in the neighborhood. We can still practice social distancing while also enjoying the warmth of the sun, fresh air and the spring-like joy of budding and blossoming trees and flowers, the welcome songs of birds, and conversation. If your loved one still lives at home and has a porch, they can wave at and chat with neighbors, always maintaining a distance of at least six feet. Getting outside in any form can do much to raise one’s spirits. If walking around the neighborhood is possible, do that as well.
  • Can’t get outside? You can bring the outdoors to a friend virtually: Washington State Park Foundation offers virtual tours and a photo gallery, including 360-degree views.
  • Virtual arts engagement experiences. We are fortunate to have a rich arts culture, from the symphony, to the opera, museums, and theaters. Thanks to some savvy curators of resources, there is an abundance of virtual tours of museums and music performances, as well as travel. We are particularly thankful to all the arts, library, and education organizations that are making these resources and opportunities like these possible:

Showing kindness in a time of quarantine

Following are ways you can show kindness to others while doing yourself a world of good:

  • Check in to see what food and drinks you can drop off at their doorway. You could bring groceries, or a prepared meal, or run by a favorite restaurant to grab takeout.
  • Offer to take their trash or recycling to the curb on trash day, drop mail off at the door, or do yardwork.
  • Run errands—are they running low on anything? Do they have prescriptions that need to be picked up? Do they have pets? Might you offer to walk their dog on occasion, if this would be helpful? What might they need long term?

Finally, consider what you might need if you were quarantined for two weeks or more—books? Treats? Games? A latte and pastry from your favorite café? It’s important to show kindness to yourself during this quarantine.

Kayleigh CreightonContributor Kayleigh Creighton, MSW, LSWAIC, BFA, is a care manager associate with Aging Wisdom. She completed graduate studies in Social Work at the University of Washington in June 2019. Her internships during graduate school included one year with an in-home caregiving agency and the next year at an inpatient hospice facility.