Baylor gerontology expert shares tips to care for aging population during Coronavirus pandemic

March 24, 2020

WACO, Texas (March 17, 2020) – The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has announced that older adults and people who have serious chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and lung disease are at a high risk for the coronavirus.

The virus hit hard in late January at a nursing facility in the state of Washington, where a number of residents died. As a result, the CDC has recommended strong restrictions on visitors to long-term care facilities, and the health organization continues to preach limited physical contact and “social distancing” – creating intentional space of six feet or more between each person – to stem the spread of the virus.

James Ellor, Ph.D., The Dorothy Barfield Kronzer Endowed Professor in Baylor University’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, is an expert on working with older adults as well as disaster behavioral health. He said it’s important in this time of uncertainty to continue to support and minister to those older adults who are self-isolating in their homes and those in long-term care facilities.

“Remember, no one stops caring about others just because germs are in the way,” Ellor said. “Express your caring in appropriate ways. This is not a vacation from caring; it is a time when caring is needed most of all. We also know that prayer is very important. Hold the person in prayer and let them know you are doing so.”

In the following Q&A, Ellor shares tips on how to care for this population during this time.

Q: What are some ways we can check on older relatives and neighbors without using physical touch and interaction?

A: There is a fine line in this unknown time between caution and paranoia. Respect for each other’s boundaries is the critical value. It seems very awkward to want to affirm someone, yet not shake their hand. However, we need to use our words and ask what the other person is comfortable with, and by the same measure, let them know what you are comfortable with.

At this point, the most obvious ways to check on people is through social media or paper and pencil. Drop them a note, call them on a phone, use other social media devices as appropriate. I would suggest that if you normally visit them, say on Fridays, be sure to continue to do that, albeit by phone or even just drop them a card.

Q: If people have chosen to self-isolate or if they’re scared to venture out due to this health crisis, what are some ways people can help?

A: Be consistent. If you have a pattern, continue the pattern. Remember the principles above. If the person is feeling out of control, talk quietly with them and offer them a card or other gesture of caring.

Q: Can you explain the importance of personal interaction for people who are shut in?

A: People with human contact simply live longer than those completely cut off from the world, with few exceptions.

While about 15 percent of older adults are “shut in,” only about 5 percent are bed bound. That means that persons who are dependent on oxygen, for example, will be in their house, but not in bed. They depend on all of their outside contacts.

Keep your normal visiting pattern, albeit with a card in the mail or phone call.

If you are a member of a church, have the youth group use some of their extra “stay at home” time to make greeting cards intended to cheer up a person in your church or group that is home bound.

Older adults like tactile things, particularly if they are sensory-impaired. If you make a card, put a feather in it, or some other feel-good item. If you are purchasing a card, there are some that have things in them that you can feel, or even hear. Some cards will allow you to record a short message.

Q: Since so many long-term care facilities now have strict rules about visitors, are there any ways that people can interact or show support to residents in a safe manner?

A: Most facilities are cutting off all contact from the outside. Only their own staff, physicians and hospice nurses are being allowed in. Even social workers, chaplains and other clergy are being kept out. In the Waco area, physicians are being screened for a fever or cough and could be turned away.

As such, phone calls, cards and letters are all important. Several facilities in this area have begun to put room numbers on the windows of their facility, so that family can come by and wave through the window.

Persons in long-term care facilities, even those with dementia, will pick up on the anxiety of the staff and especially the TV, which is often on all the time. A person with dementia may not be able to understand the anxiety but will be anxious when others are anxious. This makes the job of staff that much harder.

Q: Anything else you’d like to share?

A: The workers at these homes have a much harder job now. Don’t hesitate to send them a card or a treat if it can be obtained safely. Staff, even the people at the door telling you that you can’t come in to see your loved one, have a tough job now and need extra support from everyone.


James Ellor, Ph.D., serves as professor and The Dorothy Barfield Kronzer Endowed Professor in Family Studies in Baylor University’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work. He works with older adults around issues of mental and spiritual health. He has served on the executive committee of the Midwestern Geriatric Education Center and provided education, counseling, and planning for individuals and groups who work with seniors. His research includes work in entrostomal therapy, hunger, the church as service provider, spiritual assessment, and intervention techniques with cognitively impaired older adults.