5 Ways to Connect with Elders in the Time of Covid19

Anne Basting

“What can I do to help?” I’m getting this question a lot right now.
As someone who has worked to integrate the arts into long-term care for the last 20 years, suddenly there is a powerful need for the meaning, joy, and connection they can bring.

But how?

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is now recommending that residents in care homes dine in their rooms and avoid group activities. More elders than ever are living alone, and social programs like meal sites and senior centers are closing. People are worried about their elder family members and neighbors.

Under these conditions, “What can I do to help?” becomes a real puzzle.

Here are some ideas for those of us with elder family members or who just want to be of help.

Good old fashioned mail.

Write a postcard or letter. Send a poem or a drawing. Send a little something beautiful to brighten someone’s day. has a list of “Beautiful Questions” that invite people into wonder. Share your response and ask them a thoughtful question in turn.

Turns out the virus doesn’t live long on paper. So if the care home holds the mail for a day, good old fashioned mail is a great way to connect. You can buy stamps online, and find post boxes near you so you don’t even have to go to the post office.

You can also use apps like Touchnote that will mail it for you.

The best thing about mail is that an elder can keep it in their room and return to it again and again. It’s a gift that keeps giving.

Facetime / FB live etc. 
This is great for elders who have access to a smartphone or tablet. Focus on joy in these moments. Dance together. Play a game. Sing a song. has 100s of prompts for you to create a story together. These are anxious times. These conversations should lighten our hearts and dissolve stress, not add to it.

Not everyone has access to these tools. And staffing in care homes is so stretched that scheduling and facilitating family facetimes will be hard. So be understanding and flexible. And donate a tablet to a care home if you can.

Phone trees are going to become life-lines for elders living alone. If you know the number of a relative or elder neighbor, set regular times to call and check in. Use the same guidelines for keeping the conversations positive – ask a Beautiful Question, read a poem, sing or take an imaginary trip together.  Be creative and positive.

Keep an eye out in your community for a non-profit or government agency that offers well-check phone calls to vulnerable elders. They can offer training and background checks on volunteers to protect the elders, and they will be needing lots and lots of volunteers. Donate to them if you can.

If you are a relative, and your family member is on a reachable floor, you might try the magic of white boards outside the window. Tell a story. Write a poem. Make a drawing. Send well wishes from others.

If you are an artist, windows present delicious opportunities. Musicians can serenade. Visual artists can draw on the windows – even creating an outline that could be filled in on the inside as an activity for the resident. Theatre artists can offer puppet shows or physical comedy that doesn’t require people to hear the action. Dancers can lead movement exercises, or simply bring a little finger wiggle of joy to an elder on lockdown.

These are exciting and joyful possibilities. But first, contact the care home and work with them closely on the offering. And second, we must find a way to pay the artists. They are almost all out of work now.

The Virtual World
This is last on my list because of accessibility issues for most elders. Some care homes will have access to computer systems like It’s Never 2 Late or Linked Senior, or simply the myriad resources now popping up for virtual museum tours, live streams from zoos, or theatre productions and operas now shifting to streaming.

The rule for avoiding group activities will make accessing these resources challenging for individuals in care homes. But those in their own homes, if they are lucky to have access, can benefit from this sudden burst of live-stream programming from some of the best cultural and arts institutions in the world.

Bonus tip.
The non-profit I’ve nurtured for 20 years offers over 300, free creative prompts (and growing every day) to inspire positive, playful engagement with elders. It began as a way to engage people with dementia through imagination, rather than memory.  You can print worksheets, invite a friend to collaborate on stories with you, get ideas for engagement.

We hope, in this unfortunate moment, that we can be of service as we share what we’ve built and learned from 20 years of engaging elders.


Anne Basting is a Professor at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee; Founder and President of A MacArthur Fellow and author of the forthcoming book Creative Care (HarperOne).

Photo:  Artist Jeff Becker dances with his mom through the front window at Laketown Village in New Orleans. Full video here.