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Consider A Gift Of Connecting With Older Adults This Holiday Season

Not All Interactions Have To Be Done Digitally, Professor Says

Judie Shape opens a care package of art supplies from her daughter
Judie Shape opens a care package of art supplies from her daughter Lori Spencer, left, and her son-in-law Michael Spencer, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, as they talk on the phone and look at each other through a window at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., near Seattle. Ted S. Warren/AP Photo

Whether via Zoom or FaceTime, social distancing in lobbies, or visiting on either side of a window, people are finding creative ways to spend time with their older loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And as the arrival of the holidays urges a deeper desire to be with our loved ones — some of whom have been isolated for months because of the pandemic — safety precautions might take a back seat.

“An already stressful period of the holidays just got another layer of emotional strain,” said Anne Basting, a professor in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “People are weary. People miss each other, even just our physical presence.”

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Basting, who authored “Creative Care: A Revolutionary Approach to Dementia and Elder Care,” said there are plenty of ways to stay connected to our older loved ones without sacrificing safety. She’s well versed in building connections through a spirit of play and imagination — two types of engagement for older adults that she and her nonprofit, TimeSlips, strongly encourage.

Older adults who have been isolated for a long time can be more susceptible to memory problems and a loss of resiliency, Basting said.

“The challenge is to figure out how we turn hugs and presence … into language that we can use to reach each other and send that message that we care, and we’re here, and we’re thinking of each other,” she said.

Basting suggested these ideas to spur on and grow connections to older adults.

Send A Postcard

Sending themed postcards to older loved ones is a great way to keep the conversation going, she said.

Try picking out several postcards all with a particular theme (or it can be of your own drawings) and then invite the recipient to use tape to make a collage of the postcards you send.

“There’s a sense of accumulation over time and meaningfulness over time,” Basting said.

This is also one way to keep in contact with older adults you’ve never met.

TimeSlips launched a challenge on Nov. 29 to send postcards to nursing homes all over the world. A map on its website shows all the facilities that have requested to receive postcards during the pandemic to lift spirits of staff and residents who have been isolated from loved ones.

So far 28,294 postcards have been sent through TimeSlips.

Basting has participated in the effort, too. In those she writes, she reminds the postcard receivers that they have friends in Wisconsin who care and are hoping they’re healthy and well. Then, she includes a question or inquiry in reference to the image on the front of the card to spark imagination.

“When we turn outward and look to help another person, it releases our stress and improves our wellbeing,” she said, in support of the postcard project.

Use Zoom Like Black Box Theater

In a webinar with TimeSlips this summer, dancer Gabri Christa shared that she connects with her mother, who has dementia, over Zoom. But she treats the platform like a stage, where she manipulates how she enters and exits, plays around with zooming in close and backing far away and uses puppets to provide entertainment.

Basting explained Christa also sets up a ritual that she relies on during each visit, in her case with a coffee mug, which she uses as a conversation piece.

‘Ask A Beautiful Question’

Sometimes it can be difficult to think of questions to ask when speaking to an older adult, especially someone who is dealing with memory-related problems. Featured on TimeSlips’ website is a host of questions to inspire a bit of creativity without requiring dependence on memory.

The questions are meant to orient folks toward imagination and wonder.

Some of those questions are: “What do you endure?” or “When do you feel truly at home?” or “What is the most beautiful sound in the world?”

Play Games

Not all forms of gameplay have to be done with an internet connection.

Cribbage is a game that can be played by phone.

“That’s a perfect intergenerational project because young kids don’t know how to play cribbage,” said Basting, who asked her father to teach her sons to play through Zoom.

You could try your hand at playing chess — by mail. Exchange index cards with another player revealing your next move. Each player can keep track of the moves on their own boards. The game will progress slowly, but it’s a good way to stay connected.

Basting said participating in things like this help to extend communications, which she said will be beneficial as we get deeper into winter.

“When the barriers of COVID are set up, we can’t reach each other,” she said. “The creative output that just flows right over those barriers is amazing.”

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