Author: Kathy Francis, MACEM&PS Executive Director and Contributing Writer

As emergency management professionals, we sometimes (often) take our work home: applying preparedness skills in our home environments, taking a practical approach to life, planning for supplies, and planning to practice the plans. We’ve even been known to “gift” preparedness supplies during holidays. It comes with the territory, and the “Certified Emergency Manager” after my name means I’m certainly no exception to those rules. And yet, as the past year’s given me a new rolecaregiver support for my elderly parents—I’ve had a chance to notice some gaps, some room for improvement in how we prepare for the future, especially when it comes to caring for our seniors.

Now, don’t get me wrong; you can still bet that I was thorough. Together, my parents and I planned, prepared, kept up with government and industry guidance, and adapted all the way to today. But hindsight is a powerful gift, and emergency management is all about learning from one response to make the next one better. So, what did I learn? What could I have done better if I could rewind the calendar, do it again, take a few more or a few different steps to get them prepared to be safe, knowing what I’ve learned now? Well, here’s a glimpse at what I think it might look like.

It’s important to note that we’re not reinventing the wheel, here. The guidance provided from respected preparedness sources remains solid, valuable, and serves as a platform to build upon as we rethink any strategies for the future. We’re looking for easy improvements, basic things that we might have once taken for granted but now know to be much more important. To keep it simple, let’s consider that base-level change in three areas: social networks, personal care networks, and technical networks.

Social Networks

Like many uniquely vulnerable members of our society, senior citizens have well-established, long-term, and meaningful social networks that help them navigate the world. Many come easily to mind (faith-based networks, family, friends, fitness groups, senior centers or other hubs for activities, neighbors, etc.), and it usually goes without saying that these trusted relationships can enrich their lives and provide physical support, emotional connections, and intellectual stimulation. So much so, in fact, that it can be easy to think we know and account for them all. But as the pandemic response led each of these networks to change—some able to transition virtually, some reimagined, others proving less viable in a digital environment—it became much easier to notice the gaps: networks that were there all along, but not paid much attention until they were gone.

One such noticeable gap was the loss of those other, more routine social networks that can emerge in a senior’s life organically. While caregiver attention focused on addressing the usual suspects, these networks hiding in the plain sight of everyday life were disrupted, and now greatly missed.

Consider a local diner or coffee shop. While open and available, it could provide the space for a great meal (cooked by someone else—important!), a hub for gossip and news about the community, and an evergreen opportunity to have meaningful discussions with staff and other routine patrons. These informational social networks matter, as does the symbol of their availability: Finding human connection takes no more effort than going out to lunch. When they close—due to pandemic, or simply a changing economic landscape—these connections go dark, and the loss is felt at a much greater level than just having one less place for a meal.

Another of these organic, plain-sight social networks frequently exists at the local library. Our seniors often spend a great deal of time visiting the library: borrowing books, of course, but also participating in educational programs, field trips, and especially book review groups. For some, it also serves as an easy hub of Internet access, with publicly available computers and supportive staff assistance to enable digital tasks that might not be doable alone. Again, when this network goes dark—due to pandemic, or, say, a lost local funding debate—the loss goes beyond the obvious.

It’s fairly easy to purchase a wealth of books from discount stores (Ollie’s and the Dollar Store are some of my tried-and-true go-to options), but that wasn’t really the need. Replacing the objects of intellectual stimulation is important, true, but the real gap was larger: the connections, the discussions, the resources. Those aspects of intellectual engagement are just as important for all of us, regardless of age, but much more challenging to create for ourselves.

How to bridge that gap better? You might try:

  1. Connecting with eBooks: Since they’re often less expensive, choose one that you can read along with them, or that they and some of their friends or peers can read together, and buy multiple copies to build an improvised book club. Technology permitting, host virtual discussions on Zoom, or any other user-friendly platform.
  2. Restore circulation: Organize a book exchange with physically distanced pickups and drop-offs or connect with the library to participate in curbside pickup programs. Many offer these, though you might not realize it!
  3. Reinvent the field trip: Many seniors are accustomed to organized field trips, small or large, through their social circles, local organizations, and the like. Pandemic restrictions suggest that these can no longer occur…or can they? Take a shot at exploring the wealth of virtual field trips, historic site and museum tours that now exist online. Some existed before this environment, but many new options have become available as more and more institutions adapted to an online space. They all can provide activities, quality visuals; many offer audio tour guides and/or the ability to linger or speed through as you desire from the comfort of your own home.
  4. Discuss, discuss, discuss: Whatever solution you find, remember that the key is to restore connections, not just resources. Are there ways you can build in chances for those you’re caring or planning for to talk with others about the new—albeit unusual—adventure they’ve been on?

As you carry on with your plans, be sure to keep those principles in mind in all areas. How about designated shopping hours for seniors? Provide a chance not just to shop safely but to see others like themselves still participating, and say a safely distanced hello! Remember: age has no impact on the desire to connect with others, move about society, and feel like you’re a part of it. We have to minimize aspects of that during this response, but that’s no reason not to keep those essential goals in mind as we adapt.

Finally, consider that you are a big part of their social networks too! As your caregiver responsibilities grow and your focus on ensuring the accomplishment of essential tasks increases, your focus on the relationship can diminish. It’s natural. Yes, I too have perfected the quick doorbell dash, verbal push of directions, and a scurry back to my own home after delivering something my parents need—it’s often very useful. But I encourage you also to slow down, dress for the weather, and stand outside or sit on their porch and socialize a little while. They care about your lives and activities; care and ask about theirs too.

This brings us to the issue of communication. It’s an important aspect of connection and often necessary when supporting someone in a new task or routine, but balancing availability with your own need for personal time can be challenging. I encourage you to discuss how and when you will communicate. Give others permission to call you with urgent needs, and also to understand the difference between “urgent” and just “important” —those questions that need a timely response but can really wait until you have a break. 

The reality is that most of us newly inducted caregivers today work full time: Break time is time to connect with those we support, but other responsibilities do exist. A balancing strategy I’ve had success with is to give those you’re caring for permission to call for urgent needs but hold others until a regularly scheduled block of time. Then, block that time on your schedule, say 12-1:00 p.m., and keep it for those routine communications with those you care for. It can feel odd, but at least for me, this strategy really does reduce stress and feelings of guilt for not being accessible 24/7.

Personal Care Networks

You can use the same holistic, network-oriented thinking to approach more specific resource preparation, too. A good example may be next to you right now, waiting to be taken for a walk! We all know the importance of our family pets, especially for vulnerable populations who might rely even more heavily on a beloved pet for companionship. And yet we often still neglect to plan for them as completely as we could. 

So, consider expanding pet preparedness for our seniors—and remember that their pets are often seniors too! Know the vet(s) of preference; adapt supplies to include foods appropriate for a senior pet; account for bedding, toys, medications, schedules, exercise needs, and other limitations. Know who will check on the pet if its owner is away unexpectedly—this often gets missed, and last-minute solutions are even harder during an emergency. As a caregiver, plan to include this in your duties from the start: When you visit the person you serve, remember, visit their pets too (as safety allows). You may become a senior pet caregiver during times of need and being informed and prepared will only make the task easier. Besides all that, planning for a favorite pet can just be comforting—to yourself, and especially to those who rely upon their daily companionship and know they’ll be cared for.

Here is yet another place to think thoroughly about the interconnected resources those you care for may need: healthcare. For most people today, and especially seniors, the days of a single physician are gone—individuals have a network of medical care providers. When planning for seniors, consider whether you know the full breadth of their providers and medications. We often educate our seniors to document this information, but information accuracy and access is a known, frequent gap.

As medications change, providers move geographically, physical needs adapt, it can take substantial time and effort to maintain, consistently store, and make sure caregivers are aware of this data. Improvements have been made in this area, but as the pandemic reduces the amount of time caregivers can spend in homes, it may also reduce the chances that they’ll remember the location of this valuable document. It’s always good to double check for awareness, completeness, and accuracy, just in case.

Then, carry that same comprehensiveness to planning for food. Seniors often have varied or highly specific nutritional needs, many challenging to meet even under normal conditions. The pandemic only places more stress on this weak point. It sounds easy to order groceries and supplies and have them home delivered, and in many places that’s true. Yet, a lack of supplies can be only one part of the problem. I learned in my own planning that something even more basic was in short supply: energy to put away the groceries, meal plan, and prep and clean up three times a day. If those you care for have restraints on their physical activity—whether due to concrete physical limitations or simply not being able to be as active as they’d like—then these additional tasks can add up to an unmanageable, or at least unexpected, burden.

Remember the local diner that I mentioned earlier in the article? For my parents, that diner, alongside local delis and prepared foods sections at the grocery store, touched more of their life than I understood at first. Yes, it was a part of their social network, but they also relied upon those sources of food—and the hands sharing the effort of preparing them. When those networks went dark, that effort fell back on them personally and proved an extra challenge. 

As a caregiver, it pays to account for that early, and provide support where and how you can. Consider checking on their dietary needs (Are they allergic to anything? Do any foods complicate their medications?), and then preparing and sharing just a few home cooked items (entrees, side dishes, baked goods, etc.) each week. Using those as a base, seniors can easily add a side vegetable or salad with easy prep and clean up. As with most populations we serve, they don’t need everything done for them, but sharing resources to bring the required effort back to a manageable range can make doing their part more possible and more comfortable.

An extra touch that my parents appreciated was being willing to go a bit further than dispensing quick verbal directions while dropping off the food. Something as simple as leaving a copy of the recipe or a preparation note on the product can make all the difference. Include the date you made the item, simple directions to prepare, store leftovers, and when to discard. This helped them navigate the effort and let them be confident the foods would suit their dietary needs as well. If you’re like me and like to optimize, you might even develop a quick template for these instructional notes, so adding this touch can be as simple as filling in the details.

Technical Networks

Technical networks are threaded through all these areas. From social connections, to intellectual stimulation, to purchasing food and supplies, to connecting with healthcare resources, tech has become key. For seniors, this can become a challenge. While no population is a monolith, many seniors, my parents included, previously used technology lightly, just for fun or convenience. Centrally organizing life through it is a different matter.

So be prepared to teach a little as well. One of my most important lessons learned was that guiding them to explore technology—serving as a tutor, so they wouldn’t feel adrift or overwhelmed—paid dividends. When upscaling technology, try to purchase so that both senior and caregiver are on the same platform. Translating Apple to Microsoft to Samsung is confusing for the most tech-savvy of us, and tutoring is best when you’re speaking the same language about the same thing, anyway.

Remember, you’ll need to teach them a variety of connectivity and maintenance tasks. The familiar “microlearning” concepts from my work at MACEM&PS still served me well: Using active language, visual aids, and a patient, gracious approach work just as well for teaching seniors how to text, email, use search engines, participate in virtual meetings, protect their privacy, and keep their equipment safe as they do for training FEMA personnel to understand Community Lifelines.

This all can sound like a lot, and it often feels like it, because it is! The added responsibility is one you’re probably not used to, and adapting will probably take time and gratitude and willingness to learn. It certainly did for me. But it’s worth it: You’re being the guide and support system to set them up for success and continued independence in a whole new landscape, and especially for a loved one or family member, that’s a meaningful gift to give.

Quick Takeaways:

1) Understand and get to know all your seniors’ current social networks.
2) Be aware of emerging personal care networks and technical expectations.
3) Be involved in the purchase of technology for those you care for, especially with an eye toward common hardware and software platforms for both caregiver and person served.
4) Establish emergency and routine communications expectations.
5) Be willing to help bridge resource gaps (knowledge, food, pet care, etc.) but be sure to balance the new role with space and time for your own needs.

About the Author: Kathy Francis (MS, CEM, MDPEMP) is a frequent contributing writer here and in other emergency management & public safety academic and popular publications. Her background extends from police investigations to governmental emergency planning and risk mitigation, with her last several years spent developing and leading the MACEM&PS, where she now serves as Executive Director.

[Images via: Patrick Loonstra – Unsplash (cover), StockSnap – Pixabay (header 1), Pauline Andan – Unsplash (side 1), Andre Ouellet – Unsplash (header 2), Thomas Ashlock – Unsplash (side 2), Congerdesign – Pixabay (header 3)]

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