Ways to Connect and Keep Your Loved Ones Near While at a Distance.

December 22, 2020

written by Gizelle Talavia, B.A., B.Ed., MASP; Coordinator of Expressive Arts and Legacy Programs at Harmony Caregiving

It’s that time of year again. The winter season and accompanying holidays are now upon us along with the realization that we will be interacting with our loved ones in a more physically distant manner.

One of the few benefits of this most harrowing year is that it has encouraged many of us to learn new technology as a means to keep our loved ones close while physically distancing.

A major paradigm shift has occurred worldwide resulting from this pandemic.  By embracing technology such as social media and teleconferencing we are learning tools today that will keep us in touch with our distant family members well into the future.

In this lonely era, we want to spend time with those nearest and dearest to our hearts. Now more than ever our senior loved ones need the social connection to families and loved ones. However, even with the availability of new digital technology, many of us do not know how to connect on an authentic, meaningful way with our senior family and friends. There are a number of barriers than come to mind. For one, a number of seniors are reticent or unable to engage with newer technology. For another, having meaningful social interactions between different generations can be challenging, especially when not in the same room, face to face with one another.

In this article we discuss the benefits such digital technology can offer seniors and younger generations within your family. We provide a list of activities that can be used as a springboard for fostering connections via teleconferencing. This list also offers adaptations so that it can be used with seniors via the telephone and with seniors who have later stages of dementia or other neurological conditions. 

Connecting with our loved ones via teleconferencing or telephone needn’t take much time. What is important is maintaining a regular schedule of contact to deepen social bonds. This offers immeasurable benefits to your senior loved ones, your children and yourself.

Regular contact with seniors via teleconferencing can help them feel more deeply connected to their family. It affords them the opportunity to pass on valuable knowledge regarding their personal history and events that have impacted them over the years. By doing so, they can contribute and feel more engaged in social relationships, resulting in improved emotional and mental health.

Younger generations also stand to benefit from regularly maintained connection to the senior members of their family. They can form deeper emotional bonds with their grandparent(s) and may learn more about their family history. Moreover, psychologically, children gain a sense of greater responsibility toward the well being of others. They learn more about empathy and the value of inclusion, traits that are increasingly needed in a diverse, yet socially distant world.  

Considerations when involving your loved ones, living with dementia and other neurological conditions via teleconferencing.

For the purposes of this article the modifications to each activity listed below apply to individuals experiencing middle to late term dementia or when they have reduced ability to actively participate.  You and your loved one’s healthcare team are the ideal people to gage what stage of dementia they are currently experiencing as well as what they are able to engage in or contribute.  It is best to consult with all involved before planning any activities listed in this article. As well, when possible, it is important to seek input from your loved one regarding any activities you wish to include them in via teleconferencing. This can help towards increasing their level of interest and engagement.

Plan activities earlier in the day as individuals living with dementia become more fatigued and can experience increased levels of confusion by evening, a condition known as ‘sun-downing’. It is ideal to plan activities that are shorter in length and have fewer people to ensure increased levels of alertness as well as social engagement. Large groups of people can be overwhelming, even intimidating for many people, including those with dementia, who may experience difficulties remembering people, their names and their prior relationships.

When selecting content for the activities consider using materials (e.g., music, photographs, objects, traditions and meals) that date back to earlier periods in your loved one’s life. Individuals with dementia have a better recall of events and objects from earlier times in their lives. Subject matter from later decades may not be remembered as easily.

In middle to later stages of the condition individuals may have reduced ability to self regulate their moods. As such, when discussing past events or selecting programs, movies, music to share, it’s important to keep such material upbeat and positive.

When you plan an activity, break it down into smaller more manageable steps. It is important not to do more than one thing at a time. For instance, if you are sharing an activity that involves eating food, separate the ‘eating’ time from the ‘talking’ time. It is difficult for individuals with dementia to multi-task so taking time to truly enjoy each step of the activity will enhance the overall experience. It also increases one’s safety as they only have to attend to one aspect of the activity at a time.

Perhaps the most important consideration when planning activities, with your loved one with dementia, is their safety. Many late stage and some middle stage individuals with dementia will require monitoring and assistance from a healthcare aide (HCA) or other trusted carer when participating in said activities. It is important to assess your loved ones abilities and arrange help according to their specific needs beforehand. 

In our list of activities, we have included a column of adaptations to consider when planning for your loved one living with dementia and/or other neurological conditions. Please review them to ensure your loved one remains safe and engaged throughout each activity.

Materials for activities to engage your loved ones via teleconferencingAdaptations to activities via telephoneAdaptations to activities for seniors with later stages of dementia and other neurological conditions
Send a care package to your senior loved one. This can tie into the activities listed below. Select the activities you wish your family to participate in via teleconferencing or telephone and include items in the care package that will better enable your senior to follow along and participate such as bedtime story book(s), song lyrics, copies of photo-albums, movie videos, play programs, recipes, battery candle lights or led light.   You may wish to send a food pantry filled with an assortment of edible goodies you know your loved one will enjoy. If you and your loved one have the same foods, you can eat them together via teleconferencing.   When assembling and sending a care package to seniors with later term dementia consider the following and modify accordingly.   Ensure that all items are safe for your loved one to handle and use. For example, send battery operated candle lights or led lights that are cool to the touch, have an automatic turn off and will not cause accidental fire.   Ensure all difficult to remove wrapping and sharp edges are removed prior to sending the care package, doing this in advance can alleviate any later frustration and minimize chances of injury.   Avoid sending items that require reading or following complicated instructions to work. For example, if your loved one needs to use a VCR or television, have the proper settings adjusted by a care aide or other person trusted person prior to beginning an activity.   When planning a joint activity, use technologies and appliances your senior is already familiar with, such as their TV, VCR and telephone.   Consider whether or not your loved one requires the assistance of a care aide or other trusted person to assist them while participating in the activity.   When sending edible items ask yourself the following.   Does your senior have any allergies?   Are there any items that may react with their medications?   Do they have any difficulty chewing or swallowing food?   Do they recognize the food item?   Do they need monitoring or assistance while eating or drinking?   Avoid sending any items that contain alcohol as these are more likely to react with any medication they may be taking.
Activities to engage your family and seniors via teleconferencing  Adaptations to activities via the telephoneAdaptations to activities for seniors with later stage dementia and other neurological conditions
You can celebrate and practice long held family traditions via teleconferencing such as placing ornaments on a tree, participating in a nightly tree lighting, hanging stockings, and opening presents.You can share stories about family traditions and discuss family memories.While your senior with later stage dementia may be unable to carry out these traditions themselves, they can watch you and the family continue them via teleconferencing.
Prepare a favourite dish together.  You may include this dish in your care package for your senior loved one.Share memories and discuss your favourite dishes.While your loved one may not be able to cook themselves, they can watch you as you prepare the dish via teleconferencing. Afterwards, if you’ve sent them the item, you can eat and enjoy the dish together.   Please review the safety tips above regarding the sending of food items to your senior loved one. As well, it’s helpful to select a dish that your loved one is already familiar with (e.g., something they prepared and or enjoyed during a earlier stage in their lives).
View favourite photographs together.   While a number of seniors are adept at using technology to exchange photographs online, a number are not. For these seniors it is helpful if you make a copy of your favourite photos, enclose them in an album and send it to them via a care package. When making an album to share with your loved one with dementia, it may prove useful to write the names of the people, places, and things below each photograph along with the approximate date the photo was taken. This will help them follow along when reviewing the pictures together as a family.   As well, selecting photos from earlier periods in their lives can enhance their recall of the event and people involved.
Share a nighttime prayer and/ or gratitude journal sharing. The family can recite a favourite prayer or saying together and then each share something that has made them particularly grateful that day. Allow your senior time to answer the question regarding what they are grateful for in their lives. If they are experiencing difficulty you may ask specific questions requiring a simple yes or no response.
Light a candle or turn on a special light. Each member of the group can state a wish for the future or silently make a wish. Provide your senior with a special light to turn on. Ideally this light should have an automatic turn off.
Sing a song together. Alternatively have the children in the group sing a song. This allows the children to actively contribute and the sound of children singing brings a special delight to senior’s ears.   Advisory note: Singing can promote the spread of covid-19. As people may be asymptomatic, it is strongly advised that activities involving singing be refrained from until after the pandemic. Should any members of your family wish to sing, please follow all measures recommended by public health. Seniors with dementia have a easier time identifying with music that they grew up with as children or young adults. Selecting music with which they are familiar will enable better understanding and participation.   Please view the advisory note regarding singing, as mentioned in the activities to engage seniors via teleconferencing column (left).
Have the family perform a short pageant or play for your senior loved one.Design the play to be audio based.   Describe the setting and props used verbally.   Use descriptive dialogue and focus on creating different voices for the each of the characters.   Keep the play simple and short. Seniors with dementia may have difficulty with attention and focus. As such, design plays that are shorter in length and have visual interest (such as colourful costumes, props).   It’s alright if your senior does not understand the play. Just the fact that you are including them in a fun activity can make them feel good.   Keep plays fun and upbeat (avoid sad material).   Keep the play short in length, and before introducing a scene or character, take some time to explain it to your senior. Taking these steps may increase their attention and understanding from your loved one.
Play a game of ‘show and tell’. Have each member of the family present a favourite item to the group and explain why they like the item.    This is a wonderful activity that allows members of a family to get to know one another better.   It can serve as a good ice breaker activity to encourage those members of the family who are shyer or those who are younger to actively participate.    As well, it can be adapted to show and explain to younger generations family based traditional items during holiday. celebrations.This activity does not translate well over the telephone. However, you can adapt it so that every family member can recount a favourite moment in their lives.Show and tell can be a great activity to engage the interest of your senior loved one.   It may be helpful to have one or two members of the family present their favourite items so that your loved one has an easier time remaining focused.   Encourage your loved one to participate in the activity as much as they are able. Ask them direct questions about and provide them more time to answer.  Perhaps remind them of a memory the object brings to your mind. If you sense they are struggling to talk about the item use a series of questions that elicit a yes or no response.
Share a bedtime story.   This is an ideal activity that can foster closeness between your senior loved one and the younger generations of your family.   You or a select member of the family can choose a bedtime story and read it aloud to the other members.When reading over the telephone be mindful of the need to read slowly and enunciate the words carefully. Many seniors have difficulties with hearing and will benefit from these tips.   As well, it will be helpful to provide your senior with their own copy of the book so that they can follow along. When reading to a person with dementia, it’s important to choose a short bedtime story. If you read a longer bedtime story, it’s suggested that you break the story down into sections (reading one section per night) and provide a brief summary of the story before picking it up again the next day.   It is also helpful to have the narrator (reader) describe the scene and use different voices for the various characters.   Another recommendation is to provide your senior loved one with a copy of the book so that they can follow along, page by page.
View a television program or a movie together.  This idea is suitable for use via the telephone.   It will be helpful to use a speaker phone as many seniors have difficulty with hearing and they can talk easily without having to hold the phone in their hands for very long.   Alternatively, you can discuss news stories and jokes via the telephone.When sharing a television program or movie with a senior living with late-stage dementia it’s a good idea to select shows that date from earlier periods in their life. They will have better recall of the events involved.   Choose happy videos to keep your senior loved one in good spirits.   The shorter the length of the program or movie the better as seniors with dementia may have difficulty maintaining their focus for long stretches of time.   When dividing a movie or program into shorter viewing segments always remember to provide a brief recap of what has occurred beforehand so that your loved one can follow along more smoothly.   If you find your senior is unable to follow the story line of a movie or televised program, then share music or a musical concert with them. Seniors often retain a good appreciation of music during all stages of dementia.
Complete an art project together. If working together via teleconferencing, enclose the necessary materials for the activity or craft in a care package. Individuals in middle to late term stages of dementia may experience difficulty completing an art project. If they wish to participate in an art activity, select one that is comparable to their abilities. A simpler, safer activity such as colouring is a good idea.   Art activities involve multiple steps and multi-tasking abilities. To ensure your loved one’s safety and enjoyment it is advised that you arrange to have a trusted caregiver present to assist your loved one.   Alternatively, they may enjoy watching you and other family members complete an art project for them. You may enclose a sample of the art project in a care package so that they can appreciate the art in person after the activity.

To recap, owing to the pandemic this has been a most difficult year to remain in contact with our senior loved ones. The winter season and holidays are often stressful. It’s a busy time often fraught with loneliness for many.  While we may have the best of intentions toward including our senior loved ones in our daily lives, the pandemic has made face to face visits rare or near impossible. Thanks to the advent and increased use of teleconferencing and social media we can bring our loved ones right into our homes, albeit at a distance, thus allowing for more regular contact.

The above activities are meant to be a starting point toward promoting conversation and establishing regular routines.  It can be difficult to know what to say or how to engage a person after spending so much time apart. These activities can be used to break the ice and increase the level of comfort for all involved. They, furthermore, allow for all participants to become familiar with using teleconferencing technology as a means of connection.

In the beginning of the process, it may prove awkward to connect with our seniors using teleconferencing and social media. This article offers suggestions as to how to plan, prepare and facilitate such visits.

Planning is especially key when including your senior loved one living with dementia and neurological conditions. However, putting forth the effort in advance will afford you the opportunity to spend enhanced quality time with your loved one. In this way, you are ‘gifting’ yourself and others with the ability to be fully ‘present’ in the moment.

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