Caring for Elderly Loved Ones During the Pandemic: Insights to Finding Your Flow

by Connie Chau, UX Researcher/Master of Human-Computer Interaction Student @ Carnegie Mellon University

Whether you’re miles away from each other or living with your loved ones,  this can be a difficult and challenging time, especially for our elderly friends and family. Like many individuals around the world, my family and I have been taking care of our elderly family members throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. I’d like to share with you some things that I’ve found work well:

For starters, follow the advice given by the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on how to reduce the risk of getting COVID when visiting family members. Be sure to communicate the risks, advice, and news updates, especially to your non-English-speaking family members. As someone with many non-English-speaking family members and elderly, a large part of our effort is to not only care for them, but to make sure that they understand what is happening around them. This is one piece of advice that I think is extremely important, particularly if many news networks may not even be accessible to your elderly.

In addition to the general precautions that should be taken when caring for your elderly, here are some things that my family and I learned while supporting my maternal grandparents, who live in their own home not far from my own, throughout the pandemic.

Care and support works best with group effort. 

If it is possible, get your whole family involved. It helps when there can be multiple people helping with buying (and picking up, carrying, and sanitizing) groceries, scheduling appointments, checking-in, and many more of the tasks to relieve the stress it can be on just one person. We all have our own lives, responsibilities, and emotions to take care of, too. It’s important to know that we all are supporting each other as well. 

Set up a device and/or teach them how to receive and make video calls. 

If this is an option for you and your family, it helps to set up a device that can make/receive both video and audio calls. If you can teach them to use it on their own or write down instructions that they can always reference, this can also support consistent communication between you and your loved ones. Though my maternal grandparents are close by, my paternal grandparents (and other elderly family members) live across the United States and also do not speak English–having this sort of system lets us still check on them regularly and be available if they have any emergencies or need us to send them supplies. Communication is key! 

Create a system to track supplies, visits, and check-ins that works for you. 

My family and I are busy people, even with the pandemic happening–both my parents still work, my younger brother had school and college applications, and I had my graduate school project and research to do. We kept a list of supplies reflecting my grandparents’ specific needs and a list of groceries such as fruits, vegetables, meats, and a few snacks that my grandparents love. This helped us stay organized and not have to rethink every time we had to refresh their supplies. It also helped to track important medical appointments or general visits to their home. 

Your elderly loved ones are human beings who also need mental stimulation and activity. 

Supplies aside, everyone needs things to do. As we may not have a firm grasp on how our elderly folk spend their days (perhaps in part due to how much technology and screens play a part in our own daily lives combined with a general lack of tech literacy and usability for the elderly), this part of caring for our older family and friends can be often overlooked. Providing things such as cable television, electronic devices such as tablets and personal computers, and connectivity to the Internet is a way to give them the access to the world around them that we enjoy everyday. However, beyond the screens, you can suggest and provide materials for other activities such as painting, crafts, playing or listening to music, reading, and–if your grandparents are as restless as mine are–supervised walks to the park (with masks and other safety precautions!), along with many more that can be tailored to the interests and personalities of who you’re caring for. Which leads me to this last tip. 

Listen and slow down.

Time is precious. For my brother and I, we hadn’t spent much time getting to know our own grandparents prior to COVID-19, yet they are people who have seen us learn and grow for almost our entire lives. Now, we call them every night to check-in and just chat. Despite a bit of a language barrier, we have felt closer to our grandparents and understand them better as people. Our older folk have so much of their own history; so many interesting experiences, stories, and (yes, indeed) wisdom to share if we only just took a moment to appreciate what life has to offer us in the moment. In times like these, we may reminisce about the past and dream about all the things to do in the future and may be preoccupied with trying to keep ourselves busy, but it doesn’t hurt to slow down, take a deep breath, and cherish a moment in the present. Get to know them, not just as your elderly, but as another human being who has been through so much of all this life that you are figuring out right now. Call them, talk to them, and show them your love.

Some additional guidance for your visits: 

  • Always properly wear a mask when visiting or handling items for your elderly; if you can, wear disposable gloves and a face shield for added protection. 
  • Wipe down food packaging and rinse off fresh produce if you want to be extra cautious. 
  • Be mindful of how many and, more importantly, how heavy the groceries and amenities you plan on sending (or getting delivered) to them are. If you do not plan to help bring the items into their home, make sure that they are capable of handling them. 
  • Try to limit physical, in-person contact with them as much as you can. If your elderly are able to move around on their own and are somewhat independent, it is helpful to be strategic about when you will actually step inside their home.
  • If you are visiting them, wear a mask and suggest that they wear a mask as well for the duration of your visit (and don’t forget to wash your hands right after walking through the door!) 
  • If there is a language barrier between you and your elderly loved ones, ask a family member or willing friend who can translate to be with you when making calls.

Connie Chau is a UX researcher, Master of Human-Computer Interaction Student @ Carnegie Mellon University and Co-host of the NOMADS Podcast – listen on Spotify or follow on fb


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