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Visiting my Folks During a Pandemic – How do I Keep it Fresh?

By Susie Sarkisian, Director of Family Services, The Kensington White Plains

Let’s face it. With or without a mask, trying to visit an elderly loved one these days in this new normal is anything but normal.

First there is the mask part. If you are visiting someone who is of the age where they are considered to be in a high-risk category, the commonly shared guidelines have you both wearing masks. And, while most of us at this point have become quite used to the mask, and dare I say, even feel exposed if we forget it for a few carefree steps in a public place, the idea of just seeing about one third of someone’s face is odd. Not to mention that what is often the most familiar part of the face – a smile- is the part that’s hidden. We are left straining to look for smile lines or raised eyebrows and craving eye contact during conversations behind masks.

Then, there is the ‘six-feet-apart’ part. To call this counterintuitive doesn’t begin to do it justice. As humans, when we see someone we have not seen in a while, our first instinct is to lean in, to go towards them. Whether it’s a handshake, a hug, a kiss on the cheek, or a gentle pat on the shoulder- we go towards the person we came to see without thinking twice. It’s not normal to step back. Standing far away from a mom who you haven’t seen in months and keeping this huge gap of empty space between you both just feels wrong.

Or, in some situations where travel isn’t possible or advisable, the visiting isn’t in person- it’s virtual. It may be that for the first time in your parent’s 87 years on this planet they find themselves talking to you through a laptop screen or smart phone.  They see you, you see them, conversation is spontaneous and in actual time, but you’re not together in the same space. Once again, we are left trying to pretend this is normal.

Here we are. We are kept apart by distance, by time, by regulations, by travel restrictions, and all of this only increases our need for a connection. After all, in these times, it is connection that is keeping us afloat. Connection brings a pulse to the day, connection brings us back to the relationships.   It’s just that the art of connecting isn’t what it used to be.

So how to do this? How do we get past all these roadblocks that twist our visiting from a straight line into a knotted pretzel and still get value from it?

It can be done. It can. Connection with our elderly can happen in these pandemic times, and you are the key.

Before your visit, be aware of the energy you are bringing to these precious moments together. I have always said that regardless of a senior’s level of cognition or understanding of a situation, when we (the family member or visitor) come to see them, we bring a certain energy with us. And the visitee picks up on that energy. If you were to visit your mom and are happy, upbeat, and lighthearted, that will come through- even through a mask. Incidentally, our words and tone now take on even more relevance, to make up for the smiles that are hiding behind masks. And likewise, if you bring negative energy and a defeated attitude to the visit, the heavy energy seems to sit right there, on display, in the middle of the six-foot gap. Simply put, your attitude is your choice when you visit. And long after you have left, the energy you’ve brought along to the encounter is what remains.

Ok so now that you’ve decided to bring along a sunny outlook in spite of the many possibilities for awkwardness, and you are left wondering how to keep the conversation feeling normal, without being dominated by pandemic talk.

In my opinion, it is ok to acknowledge the pandemic if it comes up, or if someone is confused by the situation. It’s best to keep things simple. For example, say ‘the virus’ instead of ‘COVID 19’. Or try “I need to stand over here so that I don’t get you sick” instead of trying to explain the concept of social distancing.  The face mask can be simply explained with ‘it’s what we are all doing these days’ if someone is wondering why they are being worn. Virtual visits also can be explained as ‘the new way to have a phone call’ instead of lengthy travel restriction explanations. Once you have given the explanation, if possible, just move on.

When you are past these clunky hurdles, try your best to go to your normal- the-way-it-used-to-be as much as you can. If your previous routine was a daily or regular call to mom to tell talk about your kids, then pick right up on that. If you would call to ask recipe advice, ask away. If you loved celebrity gossip or to talk about tv shows, bring that back to life- maybe even with a current magazine in hand. If it is about talking favorite sports teams, bring some headlines along to share. When there is a sentimental or traditional food or treat that’s part of your family tradition, make that a part of the visit. I’ve seen everything from “Caitlyn’s big-as-your-head cookies” for grandpa, to fresh Babka arrive during family visits.  These small gestures help to make the visited feel things are as they should be, that somewhere underneath the masks, the world is still turning, and the cookies still taste delicious.  Homemade grandchildren artwork, or birthday signs always help to have the visit carry on, long after it’s ended.

By taking a few minutes before a visit to draft a loose mental agenda or jotting down a few topics on the notepad of your phone that you want to cover, you can make the most of your time together.  At the same time, I encourage you to leave some time for little trips down Memory Lane, when appropriate. If an anniversary is near, why not bring along or get out a wedding picture? The changing of seasons might be just the spark to unearth an old marathon leaf-raking story.  And when these stories come up, get curious.  “Mom, who is this standing next to you in the picture?” Or “What was your favorite part about autumn when you were growing up?”. It only takes a few minutes to have a plan before you get together.

The human spirit is an amazing thing. With obstacles in our way, and hindrances in our routine, the spirit can still be strong and persevere- when fed by powerful force connection.  So, reach out. Connect. Your visit may not be perfect, and your bandwidth may be low, but any sparks of connection and get us through.

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