“I’m somebody’s mother. I’m somebody’s sister. I’m somebody’s daughter. And granted yes, this is what I signed up for, but protect me.”
This first-person account, related to Time Magazine by a caregiver working in a nursing home without adequate personal protective equipment, is one of many harrowing stories we came across and heard directly as we tried to understand how to help older adults during the COVID-19 crisis.
A CALL TO ACTION
As a group of designers who all joined the Emergency Design Collective (EDC) to help create human-centered, rapid responses to some of the most pressing challenges of the pandemic, we knew that if we were going to help older adults, we had to start by listening and learning.
We spoke with seniors from a range of backgrounds (rural/urban, high-income/low-income, tech-savvy/tech-timid, highly-dependent/highly-independent) and also with many organizations that support seniors. We learned that while COVID-19 – which disproportionately impacts older adults – is new, many of the needs that seniors have during this crisis are not. In many cases, COVID-19 just made existing challenges even worse.
COVID-19 CHALLENGES FOR OLDER ADULTS
Among the challenges we heard about, three areas stood out:
Mental health. Already a growing crisis amongst senior populations, the isolation of social distancing is further taxing mental health. Many older adults feel the need to continue social distancing and don’t have the support structures needed to maintain social connection.
Technology. While technology-based solutions have connected many during the pandemic, they have left seniors who don’t feel confident in their technology skills feeling left out. Most seniors we interviewed wished to become better at using technology because of the pandemic.
Caregiver strain. For the over eight million adults living in nursing homes and assisted living, dependence on caregivers increased dramatically as facilities closed to the public and more safety measures were needed. This has placed tremendous strain on the already stretched staff caring for seniors.
AN OPPORTUNITY TO CARE FOR CAREGIVERS
Our desire as a team to help the most vulnerable and dependent seniors led us to focus on supporting caregivers who work with the elderly in independent living, assisted living, and nursing homes and are significantly at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here’s what we learned during our research about senior living caregivers’ experiences during this crisis:
Senior living caregivers are working with one of the most vulnerable populations during the pandemic and thus are vulnerable themselves to the virus. Any outbreak at a senior care center puts caregivers at risk, especially when 20% of caregivers are uninsured.
With seniors at senior care centers isolating primarily in their rooms and restricted in their interactions with other residents or their families, caregivers are working exceptional hours to keep their residents healthy, safe, and cared for.
The context that caregivers are working in is exhausting. They are wrestling with the fear of getting sick or getting their families sick, while often working multiple jobs just to get by. Most caregivers earn low wages and rely on contact-heavy services like public transportation.
Senior living caregivers were not the priority for receiving personal protective equipment (PPE) at the beginning of the pandemic. Without adequate protection, they weren’t able to protect themselves, their families, or those in their care.
Senior living caregivers are often not the celebrated “healthcare heroes” in the media. Instead, senior care homes are broadly characterized as “dirty places” with stories of egregious violations. Caregivers who are working hard and are committed to their jobs feel stigmatized.
With greater appreciation for the tremendous challenges facing seniors and caregivers in senior living facilities, our team looked for ways we could help serve the needs of these vulnerable populations.
But where do you start when the challenges are enormous and your resources are limited? You start small, but you start somewhere. We’re starting with gratitude.