‘Appreciate them:’ MSU gerontologist urges compassion for seniors

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FRIDAY, March 27 — In the old days, if you ran out of toilet paper, you reached for a 200-page Sears catalog and wiped yourself in style, with ornate renderings of fancy stoves, Lincoln hats and lace gloves.

Linda Keilman, a veteran nurse who specializes in gerontology, has heard all kinds of stories about turning hardship into fun from her patients at Holt Senior Care center, many of them aged 80 and older.

“They’ve been through some things,” she said. “They’re living history books.”

Keilman has found her patients to be “remarkably resilient,” and she’s learned a lot from them. But the novel coronavirus sweeping the world is double threat to older people.

“As we age, our immune system changes, and that’s normal, but we become more susceptible to viruses and bacteria,” she said.

“The second thing is, the older we are, the more likely we are to have chronic diseases — heart, lung, kidney disease, diabetes and even cancer. People with chronic conditions are more vulnerable. Many of them are already on medications and those are the people we need to be most concerned about.”

Many vulnerable seniors are confined to their homes, apartments or other facilities, with limited or no visitors, to protect them from exposure to the virus — and that’s a deep concern for Keilman, to.

“When social distancing becomes social isolation, that’s not good, especially not for older adults,” she said.

Isolation is not only a mental health concern. It can impair even a healthy person’s immune system, and seniors are at greater risk.

Some of the solutions Keilman suggests are old fashioned. Older people who live in their homes might want to put in some serious porch sitting time, not just to get away from the TV — a major source of stress — but also to get nearer to a neighbor.

Talking over the porch railing with neighbors passing by, from a safe distance, can help seniors feel like they are still part of a community.

However, facilities where large numbers of older adults live are pretty much in lockdown. Keilman is taking care to spend extra time with her patients at Holt Senior Care.

She recommends that people with older relatives in quarantined facilities write letters and send cards. Grandkids are encouraged to draw pictures or make home made greetings.

Such physical tokens, Keilman said, do more than light up a grandparents’ day. It goes up on the wall, or on a shelf, as a continuous reminder that they’re not alone. “They decorate their rooms. Most of them have bulletin boards. Kids are home now. They need to keep occupied. Be creative and send them, or take them to a facility.”

Old pictures, or new pictures, have special meaning and value.

“The staff will hang up the cards so they can see them, touch them, and keep them connected to the people they love,” Keilman said.

Most facilities accept all sorts of deliveries, Keilman said, even if visitors can’t bring them to the resident in person.

Keilman urges anyone with older relatives in lockdown to call and check in on a regular basis. Many facilities are helping residents use Skype or Zoom to connect with family.

“A lot of older people — maybe their family got them an iPad or a computer, but they don’t know how to use it,” she said. “My mother won’t even try one of those. The telephone is really the way many of them are used to connecting.”

Keilman has worked in the field of gernotology since 1983, has decades of clinical experience and teaches at MSU. She grew up in a big farming family from South Dakota and Illinois and enjoyed strong bonds with both sets of grandparents, great-grandparents and great aunts and uncles.

“We’d visit them, and I have such happy memories of people who were old, but worked hard and were full of love,” she said. “You’d get all these great big hugs and kisses and they had so much wisdom to share.”

So, when Keilman went to nursing school, gerontology was a natural for her. “I felt privileged, being able to hear peoples’ stories and being able to help them live a quality life every day until the end of their lives,” she said.

She’s heard the recent calls from public officials and pundits, from President Trump on down, to cut short the current social distancing regime and take the risk of more casualties, especially among older Americans, to protect the economy and get people back to work.

“Pay attention to the CDC and the World Health Organization,” she said. “They are the ones who are giving the scientific based information on how we can protect ourselves. We need to follow the rules and care about everybody. This is not a time to decide about rationing of life. It’s a time to do pretty simple things and hope that in a few weeks, things will be better.”

Keilman has devoted a lifetime to older patients who, she said, “built the world we live in.”

“To sacrifice full cohorts of people because we’re not patient enough doesn’t seem ethical or sensible,” she said. “The way to pay back their hardships and sacrifices is to respect them and appreciate who they are, and continue to appreciate them until it’s their time not to be here anymore.”

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