How To Support An Older Friend Or Relative During Coronavirus Social-Distancing

"It's incumbent on all of us – families, communities, neighbourhoods – to step up and think about what we can do to support people."

“Many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” Those were the sombre words uttered by Boris Johnson on Thursday, as he announced that the UK is moving to a ‘delay’ phase to try and slow the coronavirus pandemic.

His words will have understandably left many worried for their elderly friends or relatives. The health secretary said the over-70s will be asked to self-isolate “in the coming weeks” to protect themselves from coronavirus – and this could last for up to four months.

Ruthe Isden, head of health influencing at Age UK, believes now is a great time to start making preparations, as social-distancing measures tighten.

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“Some older people may already want to reduce their social contact and we should support them to do that,” she tells HuffPost UK. “But, of course, as the chief medical officer laid out yesterday, there may come a point over the next few weeks where we’re asking older people to self-isolate – in which case, clearly that’s going to be quite a challenging time.

“It’s incumbent on all of us – families, communities, neighbourhoods – to step up and think about what we can do to support people.”

So what can you do to help? Isden and online pharmacist Shamir Patel have shared their advice for helping to keep loved ones safe and well-connected in the coming months.

It’s important our older friends and relatives understand the implications of a widespread outbreak of coronavirus. “Younger relatives should speak to them to ensure they’re taking measures to protect themselves,” says Patel. “Often, older generations are stoic and may underestimate the impact catching coronavirus could have on their own health.”

You don’t want to sound patronising, though. Ask them if they’re prepared and if they need help with anything, he says. If they seem unsure about what steps to take, you could gently ask questions, such as: do you have all the medication you need? What plans do you have over the next couple of weeks? “It will hopefully open up the conversation so you can suggest tips and advice,” he adds.

What else should you cover in that conversation? Here are five things you could speak to your older friend or relative about, amid the coronavirus outbreak.

1. The importance of hand-washing.

Following good, basic hygiene is so important right now. In fact, says Isden, “it is the single most important thing anybody can do” – and yes, that means everyone.

This week a palliative care doctor, Rachel Clarke, said she’d had conversations with the over-70s in her family and was shocked that none of them were rigorously following the hand-washing protocols. “As an NHS doctor, I cannot express enough the importance of persuading your parents/grandparents why hand hygiene right now is utterly vital,” she said.

Dr Clarke urged others to ensure their elders understand the first thing they must do when they get home is to wash their hands for 20 seconds with soap and water. They should also be washing hands after arriving in any new locations, after meeting anyone, before eating and drinking, and after coughing, sneezing or touching their face, she said. “This advice may save their life. And will certainly slow [the] spread.”

2. The need for supplies.

“At this stage, they [older people] shouldn’t isolate themselves, but they do need to try and avoid large crowds, such as supermarkets,” says Patel, who is founder of online pharmacy Chemist 4 U.

If you’re able to, organise a supermarket rota system so you can share the load with a few other friends or relatives. You could go and get their food shop yourself, or offer to organise an online shop for them. If they’re savvy when it comes to the digital world, it might be easier to show them how to do an online shop for themselves.

“Ensure they have adequate amounts of antibacterial gel available to carry with them when out and about,” says Patel. “Explain how important it is that they have access to several weeks of medications, food and supplies in case they need to stay home for prolonged periods of time.”

If stricter social-distancing measures come into place, it might be hard to pop to the doctor’s to pick up medication. Patel says it’s worth checking if it’s possible to get their prescriptions ordered online and sent directly to them.

3. The exercise they could do.

We need to be thinking about how older people can maintain their health and wellbeing if they do have to stay indoors for long periods of time. We therefore shouldn’t be overlooking the importance of physical activity. “It really won’t be good for people if they’re immobile,” says Isden.

At the moment it’s business as usual, so encourage your friend or relative to keep going on walks, swimming or attending classes, she adds. But if it gets to the point where people need to stay indoors, support them to stay active in their house and garden. Let them know about apps, YouTube videos, online classes and fitness DVDs they could use instead. Even gardening and doing housework can be a good form of exercise.

4. The ways they can connect with people.

Preventing loneliness and social isolation is hugely important for health – both mental and physical. If you can’t see someone face-to-face, make sure you’re keeping in regular contact by phone, post or online, if possible.

“Let them know that if they feel lonely or isolated, it’s okay to give you a call; either just for a chat or for help and support,” says Patel.

You might also want to set your elderly relative up with internet over the next few weeks, says Isden, and teach them how to use FaceTime or Skype. You could dig out an old laptop, iPad or other tech hand-me-down – then teach them how to use it.

The next few weeks are a critical time to practise doing this, before we move to stricter measures. It’s estimated we’re four weeks behind Italy in terms of the virus’ spread. “I would strongly urge people to go and visit their older relatives now before social-distancing measures come into place,” adds Patel.

This is providing, of course, that you feel well enough to do so. If you don’t and you’re due to visit a parent or grandparent – perhaps for Mother’s Day – you have to be strict. Don’t visit. It’s not worth putting them at risk.

5. The hobbies that could keep them busy.

“Obviously there’s a big focus on getting them practical items like food and medication, but I’d also urge people to get things to help them carry on with hobbies,” says Isden.

If you know a keen knitter, for example, make sure they’ve got plenty of craft supplies to last them. The same as if they love to read, make sure they’ve got plenty of books, newspapers and puzzle books on hand. With magazines and newspapers, you could also set them up with digital versions or subscriptions.

You may not be able to provide this face-to-face, so why not send something in the post? After all, we all love to get something in the mail – it’s a nice surprise and shows us we’re being thought of.

“This is beyond any single organisation or branch of government to manage,” adds Isden. “It really needs all of us to step up, pull together and to help and support each other. These are really straightforward things that anybody can think about with their families or communities to get set up – and they’re going to make all the difference in the weeks and months ahead.”