Supporting Older Adults During COVID-19

By Julie S. Son, Ph.D., Stephanie West, Ph.D., Megan C. Janke, Ph.D., Toni Liechty, Ph.D., and Jill Naar, Ph.D. | Posted on April 20, 2020

Supporting Older Adults blog 410

As with the general population, many older adults across the nation are faced with

stay-at-home orders and are sheltering-in-place. However, for some older adults with serious health conditions, physical distancing may be necessary for many weeks or even months beyond official city or state restrictions. Older adults and/or individuals with chronic conditions, like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, are more likely to develop a severe case of COVID-19. As such, staying healthy physically and mentally during this pandemic may be particularly challenging due to concerns of contracting the disease, and greater risks of developing a life-threatening secondary condition, such as pneumonia. So, what can you do as a park and recreation professional to help during this time? There are several things you can do!

We know that moderate physical activity promotes immune response to viral respiratory infections. We also know that social engagement has health-protective benefits for everyone, including older adults. As park and recreation professionals, you provide physical activities, educational opportunities and social connections on a routine basis. How do you do this now that older adults are sheltering-in-place during the pandemic? Here are some dos and some don’ts.

In Your Communications

Don’t reinvent the wheel! There are existing resources  such as the National Institute on Aging’s Go4LifeSilverSneakers and AARP: Exercising at Home Just Got Easier — that are trusted and useful for this age demographic. There are numerous free exercise websites and existing older adult online communities.

  • Do find and share useful resources on your websites.

Don’t provide unvetted weblinks, or direct people to more than five websites at a time. The quality of web resources varies widely, and too many links at a time can overwhelm those you are trying to serve.

  • Do review all the resources ahead of time for quality assurance.
  • Do provide two to four websites/resources you have reviewed for quality and appropriateness. If possible, provide updated resources regularly, as state and local guidelines and ordinances continue to evolve. Be sure to keep an archive of the previous resources.
  • Do encourage users to find the best-suited information for their situation. Also, encourage them to be mindful of their current physical activity level. As always, older adults should check with their doctor before engaging in any new exercise routine.

Older Adult Volunteers

Don’t ignore your older adult volunteers. Keep in mind that older volunteers who can no longer volunteer at the youth center, neighborhood park planning committee or community center may have lost an important part of their identity and/or sense of purpose and social connections.

  • Do provide opportunities for your older adult volunteers to get involved in alternative ways. Older adults can serve in several ways, including making calls to the most vulnerable housebound older adults or even conducting a class virtually. You might consider connecting your agency and older adult volunteers with AARP Community Connections, a new online platform that was just launched by AARP Innovation Labs and allows users to organize and find local volunteer groups to help pick up groceries, provide financial assistance or lend emotional support to neighbors, friends and loved ones.

Older Adults and Technology

Don’t assume older adults don’t or won’t learn how to use online technologies. Over 60 percent of adults ages 65 and older use online technology on a daily basis.

  • Do share information on free internet services that older adults can use. Remember many older adults may be on fixed incomes and/or have limited knowledge about how to get connected.
  • Do a webinar or share a link on “how to” use the basics of programs like Zoom and YouTube that are free or have free versions. Older volunteers who are hosting classes as wide-ranging as photography and tai chi can use free versions of programs to post content vetted through your organization.
  • Do provide technical support whenever you can to help older adults use internet services and programs.

Needs of Older Adults 

Don't assume all older adults are on a fixed income and/or are unwilling to pay for your services.  

  • Do provide services that have value and you might just find that there is a market of older adults looking for ways to remain engaged with existing programs and people. For an example, see the depth and breadth of programs being offered by the city of Calabasas through their Virtual Recreation Center.

Don't forget that one of the most important pieces that might be missing from the lives of older adults is their ability to connect with others.

  • Do help your older adults stay connected to your community. Use AARP Community Connections to register as a Mutual Aid Group to help provide assistance. Then communicate to your community members that they can use that site to request a friendly phone call for themselves or someone they know who is feeling socially isolated.  

Consult the Experts

Don’t try to go it alone.

  • Do consult with field experts. For instance, if you want to know what exercise adaptations you might recommend for adults with diabetes, consult the American Diabetes Association. If you want to know how to clean your facility prior to welcoming back your participants, consult reputable organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Start with their websites but also consider sending an email if you are unable to locate the answer on your own.
  • Do ask for help from other professionals who use online technologies frequently. For instance, many teachers have had to teach a course or multiple courses online. If you know someone who is a teacher, ask them for tips and strategies on the technology they have used. Lean on their knowledge and expertise.

Most importantly — don’t worry about having all the answers

  • Do tell your older adults you will work with them to find an answer.

Remember, you continue to be an important resource for older adults in your community. During the COVID-19 pandemic, you can be a trusted source of support, resources and routine as older adults practice physical distancing by staying in their homes during the pandemic.

For more information about NRPA’s response to COVID-19, as well as available resources for park and recreation professionals, please see our Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) webpage.

Julie S. Son, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Idaho.

Stephanie West, Ph.D., is a professor at Appalachian State University.

Megan C. Janke, Ph.D., is an associate professor at East Carolina University.

Toni Liechty, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Jill Naar, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Appalachian State University.