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Connecting With Older Adults During The Holidays

Grandmother talking to her grandchildren on the computer for Christmas.
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Adults over 65 account for more than 75% of Utah’s COVID-19 deaths, yet make up only 11% of the population.

As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on and the country enters what many experts anticipate will be the darkest period yet, the mental health challenges some people are facing might only be getting worse. It’s particularly difficult for the elderly, said Kathie Supiano, director of Caring Connections at the University of Utah’s College of Nursing.

Doctors and health experts continue to advise people not to visit anyone outside of their immediate household, but that’s especially true for older adults since they are some of the most vulnerable to the disease.

In Utah, people over the age of 65 account for about 8% of the state’s total cases, yet more than 76% of deaths. Dr. Mark Supiano, chief of the Division of Geriatrics at University of Utah Health, said the disproportionate rate of older adults’ deaths is staggering, but their relatively low case counts suggest they are taking the right precautions.

That also means, however, they are bearing the brunt of social isolation, which comes with its own risks, too.

Kathie Supiano said it can be more harmful than smoking and should be taken seriously. But she also said that the elderly are, by nature, resilient. And people should look to them to help figure out ways to cope.

“This is not their first rodeo,” she said. “Good luck finding an 80-year-old who hasn't had a heart break, who hasn't had a loss, who hasn't had to creatively reconfigure their social landscape at some point in their life.”

She said her parents, for example, survived World War II and went two years without seeing each other.

Here are few ways she said people can stay connected with the older adults in their lives:

  • Increase communication and the variety of communication. It could be calling, writing letters, dropping off food or gifts or video chatting. Technology is a challenge sometimes for older people, she said, but we should be grateful to have it as a tool and find ways to use it. Opening gifts, playing music or having children read stories virtually are a few examples.
  • Ask older adults what they’d like to do and what works for them. Invite them to brainstorm creative ways to stay in touch.
  • Older people should try connecting with each other. Some senior centers are sharing email lists and zoom links, she said. People can reach out to others in similar situations to connect and share their experiences.
  • If people are far away from a family member who needs support, they should look up agencies in the area which can then send help. Kathie Supiano said Utah has some of the most widely distributed aging services in the country, with case workers and various programs located across the state. Services like Meals on Wheels, which deliver food to frail and isolated older adults, are still running strong.

“This is an invitation to be creative and also to be fun,” she said “We just have to say we are in this for everyone.”

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