NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - As this pandemic continues, with limits on in-person family visits and strong social distancing guidelines, there is an escalating need to ensure older adults living at home can remain as engaged as possible.

It is certainly challenging, especially among elders who do not commonly use technology. But it is important for loved ones and caregivers to introduce connected devices – from a basic tablet and smartphone, to virtual reality and interactive gaming – to keep them as connected as possible as months of isolation can prompt depression and other lasting ailments.

At the forefront of this issue is Marcy Salzburg, Director of Social Work and Dementia Care at Parker, who handles the intake of all new guests at the residential campuses in Piscataway, Highland Park, New Brunswick, Franklin and Monroe. She is seeing many incoming residents eager for interaction and engagement, after remaining at home, often alone, since the coronavirus shut down many parts of society in mid-March.

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“We have seen COVID-19 turn life upside down for so many older adults, from working, to socializing to performing everyday activities in life,” Salzburg said. “We also know very well that elders are at much higher risks for contracting the virus and the only way to keep them healthy is to keep them socially distanced, despite the many obstacles.”

There are many challenges, especially for those people with pre-existing conditions who have not been able to regularly see medical professionals. They are now more responsible for self-care, as a family member or friend typically visited daily to prepare meals or do some of the household chores. And not having those daily visits have left some feeling alone and abandoned.

“Many people are spending a lot more time watching television, and that is not a good thing,” Salzburg said. “With these 24-hour news channels constantly reporting about the coronavirus and other troubles of the day, it can be particularly stressful – especially for someone who has nothing else to do than spend hours in front of the screen, putting his or her mental health into a vulnerable position.”

That is why Salzburg – and others who work with older adults – consider technology as an immediate savior during these challenging times. She encourages families to “Facetime” and “Zoom” with loved ones. Older adults can also download “apps” to play games with their friends, or be engaged in trivia, music or online classes.

Adult daycare programs, such as the one at Parker, offer a comprehensive number of virtual courses and “real-time” events for the at-home community, serving as engagement and helping underscore that people may be living alone, but are not alone. Salzburg noted there are online painting classes or cooking classes, in which participants gather their own supplies and join in an interactive event with others who are living at home.

“Some people are also comfortable with outdoor visits, which is also what we are allowing at our nursing care and assisted living residences,” Salzburg said. “People can congregate with their loved ones outside, perhaps for a visit on the driveway or on the deck, with everyone spaced accordingly and wearing masks.”

It is also important to note that Parker Health Group and other aging services programs now offer at-home rehabilitation services, which are critical to those individuals who may be sitting at home all day and experiencing a deterioration of their physical condition.

There are numerous available services, such as speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy to maintain physical health. Of course, walking, yoga, Pilates, gardening, arts and crafts and stretching are other simple, cost-effective cardiovascular benefits.

Another popular way to engage is through the creation of an online grocery club, in which neighbors can join in an order of food that is delivered through Amazon or other online sources. By creating a club, neighbors can defray the cost of shipping and share some of the items that are purchased. It also is another way to engage people, as they join together online to complete the weekly grocery list, with the products safely delivered to their door.

“Whether you are a person in need of care or a caregiver, the most important thing you can do at this time is to take care of yourself,” Salzburg said. “It is frustrating and difficult for everyone at the moment. It is really important to take time out and do whatever activity you enjoy that reduces your amount of stress. Whether you are attending one of Parker’s online programs, or finding some enjoyment with a visit from a loved one on the driveway, remember that emotional wellbeing is critical for overall wellness.”

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