March 25, 2020

On a regular day, the Hollywood Senior Center is bustling. An entire community of participants flocks to the center for cooking classes, yoga, lectures and all sorts of programming and activities that add structure to participants’ daily lives. 

Now, as our community grapples with COVID-19, the center has had to close its doors to the public for the time being. Despite that, Executive Director Amber Kern-Johnson says the center’s staff are busier than ever as they devise ways to continue providing support.

“We are doing a lot of telephone reassurance, checking in with our clients and participants,” Kern-Johnson says. “People are writing uplifting notes of support that we are sending out to our participants, letting them know that people are thinking of them during this time. We have people offering to do grocery shopping, to run errands. Every day it seems like we’re getting groups of people reaching out.”

Many of the center’s participants have lived through tough times. As staff reach out to check in with them, they find themselves being mutually reassured by the perspective and wisdom of an entire community of people who have survived world wars, stock market crashes and other health crises like the polio epidemic. 

As Oregon continues to take protective measures that can disrupt routines and social connections, experts say that seniors are well-equipped to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, they warn, older adults must remember to take measures to protect themselves. 

“We know older adults have many strengths,” says Lee Girard, who directs the County’s Aging, Disability & Veterans Services Division. “Many have lived through tough times and know when to take stuff seriously. And this is serious. If we take it seriously, we will get past COVID-19.”

Set up a virtual social network

Many people are finding themselves in uncharted territory as they are forced to stay home in order to comply with the governor’s “Stay Home, Save Lives” order. This experience can cause fear and anxiety for those who are new to it. 

The experience sheds light on a reality many seniors already face, says Kern-Johnson. Even before COVID-19, many older adults struggled with social isolation. The pandemic underscores how important it is for all people, including older adults, to communicate with one another.

“We have to remember that this is unfortunately the way so many of our older adults experience life,” Kern-Johnson says. “Now there are more restrictions and more seniors who were active and engaged who are finding themselves in this position. This is a great time to make connections over phone or via video chat. It’s really important to begin getting to know some of the older people in your life or your community.” 

Hollywood Senior Center participants helped prepare warming kits in Winter 2020;

Social isolation can have negative health effects for anyone, including older adults. It’s even been linked to high blood pressure and heart disease. To combat loneliness during a time of physical distancing, experts recommend taking greater measures to reach out to a loved one by phone.

Phone calls, video chats and text messaging with friends and family help people feel close when they have to stay apart. By setting up a phone call with a friend or video chatting with a family member, people living alone may be better able to cope with loneliness and anxiety while Oregonians stay at home to stop the spread.

Local organizations are also taking measures to help people stay connected while being apart. The Oregon chapter of the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP), which boasts 510,000 registered members, has begun holding weekly tele-town halls to keep older adults informed while at home. 

“There are many needs that we have to make sure we are meeting so folks don't put themselves in harm’s way,” says Ruby Haughton-Pitts, who directs Oregon’s AARP chapter. “We want to make sure that we are caring for them.”

Keep up a healthy routine 

For those who had a physical health routine before the pandemic, experts say it’s essential to find ways to continue it at home. Oregon’s stay-home order allows people to get outdoors as long as they adhere to physical distancing guidelines, which means it’s safe to walk, bike and jog while staying six feet away from anyone outside their immediate household.

Since gyms and fitness centers are closed, now is also the time to begin an “at home” workout routine. The National Center on Physical Activity and Disability has information and resources for how older adults can stay active, regardless of mobility. 

“The same reason that older adults are more at risk if they catch COVID-19 are also the same reasons they need to maintain normal amounts of exercise and practice healthy eating,” Girard says. “It’ll help them with their immunity, in addition to the slew of physical and mental health benefits we know exercise already provides.”

Take media breaks

During stressful times, consuming a lot of news can make anxiety worse. Experts say it’s important to limit consumption of concerning coverage to just one period in the day, and to consider taking a break from conversations about the news, too.

“Don’t watch the news all day long,” Haughton-Pitts says. “That can be unraveling. It can absolutely shake you up. Go about your normal activities while also adhering to the governor’s guidelines. Call people, check on them. Oftentimes friends and family need to hear from you as much as you need to hear from them.”

In times of crisis, scammers also prey on people’s fears. The more exposure people have to negative news, the more likely they are to fall prey to charity, testing and treatment scams. 

Instead of watching the news all day, mental health experts encourage finding other ways to structure the day, including: 

  • Exercise

  • Mindfulness

  • Reading a book

  • Reaching out to connections

  • Learning a new healthy recipe

  • Being creative through art, journaling or photography

“We have been encouraging people to go to the County’s COVID-19 website because it has clear, concise information that really helps people understand what’s going on,” Girard says. “Focus on good sources and try to stay away from news that sensationalizes or adds more emotion to what’s going on.”

Life experience is an advantage

While older adults may be vulnerable to the virus, the experiences they carry can be a strength in navigating tough times. Many remember having to go through times of crisis before the advent of technology that keeps people connected.

In checking in with the people they serve, many providers say they have been inspired by the wisdom that their older participants have delivered.

“I’ve had conversations with a number of participants who spoke about their experiences overcoming similar challenges,” Kern-Johnson says. “I hear often, ‘We got through that and we’ll get through this one.’ Older adults are incredibly hardy and probably more calm than many of us for whom this is the first time experiencing it.”

Experts agree that the best thing older adults can do right now is listen to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and their state leaders. For now, that means staying at home whenever possible, practicing guidelines on hygiene, and only going out for essential activities. Many volunteers are happy to help deliver groceries or medicine.

While the stress of the pandemic is being felt by all, it’s also an opportunity to expose the strengths of our community. If nothing else, Haughton-Pitts says, everyone can find comfort knowing that the pandemic will pass and that there are people in our lives who need us. Now is the time to reach out to them. 

“I think it’s important for us to remember that we are going to get through this,” she says. “People need to guard their health and the health of those around them and not forget in going about the activity of our day that somebody else needs us. We have to care about other people in order for this to happen.”

What the rest of us can do

  • Check in on an older neighbor by phone.

  • Drop off a note on a neighbor's porch with your phone number, and ask if they need groceries, or help with errands.

  • Offer to dictate a letter, or read one.

  • If you are healthy and can maintain six feet of distance, ask whether you could help an older person use a computer or video chat.

  • Help them continue their faith or spiritual practice by bringing over and setting up a phone or laptop for a virtual faith service.

  • With libraries closed, drop off some books or magazines. Leave them in a bag on the porch.

  • When the weather improves, sit outside a screen door and visit.

  • Send a card, printed photos or flowers to offer cheer. And don’t forget the soothing power of coffee cake!