Did you know that by 2040, 20% of Americans will be 65 and older? As the population of older adults increases, it’s crucial to recognize and celebrate the rich depth of experience, talents and unique perspectives of such a large segment of the country. Yet, all too often, older people are overlooked and undervalued.
Eve Gelb, senior vice president of member and community health for SCAN Health Plan, which provides Medicare Advantage coverage to more than 200,000 older Americans, describes ways to “shine a light” on older people in a TEDx talk from February 2020. Her advice for connecting meaningfully with seniors is even more vital in the pandemic landscape, when so many have become isolated from friends and family.
Gelb stresses the importance of empathy — the ability to imagine what someone else’s experience is like. She says empathy is crucial for understanding and shining a light on people who might otherwise become withdrawn and disconnected from their communities. To show empathy, Gelb says you need to engage with and be curious about people, listen to them deeply, and appreciate their value.
“When people aren’t actively engaged, they decline, and they decline faster,” says Gelb. “Human interaction has been shown to slow the aging process.”
How to connect with seniors in your community
Gelb recommends what she calls “micro-volunteering.” Similar to other kinds of volunteering, micro-volunteering offers the opportunity to brighten someone else’s life — and reap the rewards of feeling good by knowing you made someone else feel good.
However, unlike regular volunteering, micro-volunteering does not demand a huge time commitment or a major change to your lifestyle. It simply means finding small ways throughout your daily life to shine a little light on someone who could benefit from the help, the empathy and the attention — even for just a short time — to feel more included in the world around them.
Here are simple ways you can micro-volunteer to make a difference in a senior’s life:
1. Call every week
Make it a regular habit to call your older friend, neighbor or family member each week, so they have a friendly conversation to look forward to. Ask them about their life, and tell them stories about yours. Gelb says this is an activity SCAN encourages by offering employees paid time off to volunteer.
2. Offer to pick something up
Offering to get some groceries or a prescription for an older person can make their lives a lot easier. Don’t wait to be asked for help, as someone living alone may be reluctant to reach out. Just call and say, “I’m heading out to the store — can I pick something up for you?”
3. Help them stay safe
Make sure any vulnerable person you know has face masks, hand sanitizer and the ability to order or ask for what they need. Mask up and offer to help them sanitize their doorknobs and phone after you drop by with a delivery. Help them use video conferencing to communicate with family members or friends.
4. Find ways to keep them engaged
Drop by with a care package containing things they might like to do: a jigsaw puzzle, a deck of cards, large print books or crosswords. If you’re a good cook or have a green thumb, bring them a sample of your latest dish, offer to help with yard work, or bring them a plant that’s easy to care for — and that gives you a reason to stop by to check on them next time.
5. Be their tech support
To communicate with the outside world, older people may have to rely on smartphones, computers or tablets that can sometimes be complicated or confusing to use. Teach them how to use apps like Zoom, set up a charging station for their phone or tablet, reboot devices so they run better — or just ask if they’re having any problems accessing their email or using their phone.
Making a regular connection, especially with someone who lives alone, can have a huge impact on their overall well-being. To explore more ways to help seniors live a more fully engaged and connected life, visit SCAN’s Volunteer Action for Aging page at Scan.Samaritan.com.