The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has all of us thinking and talking about the best way to protect family members, friends and ourselves. There is no group of people where this is causing more consternation than within the family caregiver community.

First, before we even get started with the focus of this blog…building an emotional connection with our loved ones… if you want to know the real facts surrounding COVID-19, there is no better place to find them than on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Honestly, between false information and conflicting stories found on the Internet and all the opinions about the dos and donts surrounding the virus, it can all be dizzying. The CDC will take away the ambiguity and give you plenty of important information, including identifying the range of COVID-19 symptoms and what to do about them, listing best practices to avoid the virus and the provide the latest information about COVID-19.

Over the last week, a common concern I am hearing from family caregivers who are caring for a loved one that does not live with them is their fear that a required physical isolation or self-quarantining may cause their loved one to feel lonelier and become fearful and depressed. This is a legitimate concern.

Studies indicate feelings of loneliness, especially in older populations, contribute to a higher risk for cardiovascular disease, stroke, dementia, memory and learning declines, as well as increased stress and depression.

I actually encountered this with my 91-year-old mom, Vivian. Vivian is in pretty darn good shape and lives in a very nice assisted living complex in northern New Jersey. To ensure that the residents, a very COVID-19 vulnerable population, are as safe as possible, they mandated that outside family and friend visitors are now NOT allowed into the complex until the virus is no longer a threat.

Upon hearing this, I called Mom to let her know that for the foreseeable future the only way we (and all family members and friends) are going to be able to connect with her is by telephone. We chatted about why this was important and what this means, and before I left I gave Vivian a big hug and promised I would speak with her in the morning. Well, tomorrow came and I called my mom as promised, only to learn she had changed her phone number and made it unlisted. Well, so much for me being in the will!

Ok, ok, come on, during this stressful time there is nothing wrong with a little family caregiver humor.

The truth is, when my brother, sister and I first heard about the decision to restrict access, we were happy for our mom’s safety but also concerned about her emotional well-being. Our mom looks forward to our visits and the visits from her dear cousins who she loves seeing.

Our primary concern was that not physically engaging with our mom might affect her mood and amp up her feeling of loneliness.

Today, due to COVID-19 many family caregivers need to adjust their normal caregiving routines to ensure the safety and well-being of their loved ones. And, like in my situation with my mom, this can mean keeping a physical distance from our loved one.

So what can we do?

While we have COVID-19 and the threat it poses to our older population as a part of our daily lives, we need to take a step back and figure out how at this time we can make lemonade out of this unwanted lemon…
I don’t know about you, but usually when I call my mom I just pick up the phone and start chatting. I want to say hi, see if there is anything new, and get a feel for her health status. It is usually a very nice exchange, unless Vivian wants to get feisty and then our discussions can become more animated. Truth is, after while these calls can become a little rote, but please don’t confuse this with not caring.

So, during this period of physical isolation, what can I do to ensure we stay meaningfully connected and minimize the feelings of physical absence?

Mindful Connections Through CARE Calling

Rather than just picking up the phone and begin chatting, going through the same discussion and questions time after time, after speaking with a number of family caregivers and loved ones in their care I created a simple process that can deliver greater engagement and boost an emotional connection with your loved one.

I call it CARE Calling.

C…Be creative in developing conversation topics

A…Be accepting of loved one’s daily interest levels

R…Be receptive to loved one’s input

E…Be engaging in discussions and interests

CARE Calling is practical, builds anticipation, can be thought provoking, and facilitates two-way conversation each time you and your loved one want to get on the phone. And, I guarantee… it will not be boring!

My CARE Calling Considerations

I know Vivian likes political news and current events. She has great interest in understanding the reasons behind decisions. By the way, we do NOT always agree politically.

Vivian “can” be involved in the activities at her residence. I say, “can” because my mom can just as easily avoid this. Engagement with fellow residents is very important, especially during this special time.

Vivian likes to read, especially romantic thrillers and mysteries and some light biographies.

Typical mom, Vivian LOVES to know what is going on with our families and work. Very family oriented.

My CARE Calling Action Plan

Given that telephone calls are going to be the primary way for my mom and me to personally connect for the foreseeable future, we talked about making each call a little more fun with purpose, and, we together decided on a few guidelines. Naturally, these guidelines were not rigid, but gave our calls a little more pop and a great way for us to mutually engage.

One rule… before we ended a call we discussed what special topic we would discuss on our next call.

For instance, my mom is reading a book by Kate White, The Secrets You Keep. So I started reading this with her and we decided to discuss the first 50 pages on the next call.

This served as great fodder for conversation and was something we looked forward to. You get the picture. By finding topics of interest we are able to not only catch up with the usual chitchat but also have a meaningful conversation through common interest, and this is the point.

Most of us live in a faster paced, hectic world than the one we were raised in and this is equally true for our loved ones. In some way, the harsh conditions COVID-19 has delivered provide time and distance to honestly assess if we can make a deeper connection with those closest to us.

Hey, I guess it is working for us because Vivian has promised to not change her phone number without telling me!

Help yourself. Help others.