Caring for the elderly during COVID-19

Northland professionals share tips on caring for loved ones as well what they're doing at their organizations.

Lonny Royer, a volunteer driver with Meals on Wheels and Senior Dining, prepares to load both hot and frozen meals into his vehicle in Duluth on Friday, March 20. Meals on Wheels is run by the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency, which one of several providers in the area offering services to older adults. (Steve Kuchera /

With visiting restrictions in place at senior living facilities and recommended at the homes of older adults, Northland professionals shared what can be done and what is being done to care for older adults in the midst of a pandemic.

Sara McCumber, a geriatric nurse practitioner and associate professor of nursing at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, emphasized the importance of routine, having an established emergency plan and getting creative with communication.

“I think it’s important that we don’t transfer our anxiety to them because I think that we need to try to focus on what’s positive,” McCumber said. “Try to find something that they are able to focus on that would help them.”

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Sara McCumber


McCumber, who also works at Essentia Health with patients experiencing dementia, recommends families looking to stay in touch with their loved ones ask if the living facility has a communication plan. Sometimes, she said, it can be easier for staff to initiate the call when it works best for the facility to avoid overburdening the system.

Since internet access is becoming more widespread in senior living facilities, McCumber also recommends that families that want to be in frequent communication provide their loved ones with a device, such as a cellphone or an iPad, in order to communicate over video calls, for example.

“I’m not just worried about people in facilities,” McCumber said. “I also worry about people in assisted living and I worry about people living in their own home.”

Which is why she insists emergency plans are critical and should address needs such as food, medicine and regular connections or people who are designated to check in on older adults in their homes. She recommends at least two or three connections a day, whether over the phone or virtually.

“I think what happens is people get so busy they think, ‘They’ve got their meds. They’ve got their food. They’re safe,’” McCumber said.

One way families can stay connected to the older adults in their life, regardless of whether there’s a global health crisis occurring, is to watch the same TV program or read the same book to discuss over the phone.

Having a routine to wake up to is also vital in maintaining the well-being of older adults, McComber said. The routine can include things such as eating meals, getting exercise, fresh air and sunshine.

“Sometimes people need to have a written-out schedule,” McCumber said. “If their family is interacting with them during the day, maybe giving them an assignment during the day and following up on them later.”


There are many resources online that can provide structure to their days, McCumber said, such as virtual museum tours, virtual karaoke, exercise programs or tuning into discussions and educational programs over phones using a service called .

"We have to be careful people don't get someplace where they might be scammed," McCumber said.

Kristi Kane, executive director of Arrowhead Area Agency on Aging, which advocates on behalf of adults and ensures that the area's services for older adults are tailored to meet their needs, said there’s an increase in scammers taking advantage of the fears surrounding COVID-19, often targeting older adults.

“Don’t open links from people you don’t know. Watch for emails claiming to be from the Centers for Disease Control or the World Health Organization. Most often, they don’t have your email and they’re not sending you something,” Kane said. “Ignore online offers for vaccinations. There’s lots and lots of that popping up.”

In addition, older adults are also often targeted for donations, Kane said. She warned people to be skeptical of sources asking for donations by cash, gift card or money wiring.

The Arrowhead Area Agency on Aging also works closely with more than 20 groups in the area that provide services to older adults.


“Our aging network really wants to stress that they want to help,” Kane said. “They are here to help and provide services but there’s limitations on things they can do as well because of social distancing. That certainly is affecting one-on-one support and transportation.”

While volunteer-based transportation services for seniors have been eliminated in some areas, Kane said it’s still being provided in many places for people with critical needs and that grocery deliveries have increased as well as calls to people who are home-bound.

Age Well Arrowhead, which is just one of the many service providers the Arrowhead Area Agency on Aging supports, has temporarily halted its transportation services to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19. Grocery delivery services, on the other hand, have increased by about 35% in the past couple of weeks, Executive Director Mary Bovee said.

Prior to the pandemic, Bovee said volunteers were shopping for about 40 people every week, a number they expect will double soon, meaning Age Well Arrowhead is one of countless organizations seeking volunteers.

“We had volunteers that were from colleges and because of the closures we have lost many college students,” Bovee said. “Also, many of our volunteers are older adults themselves and many of them want to travel in the winter. So when they came back we lost a few of them for a few weeks.”

Age Well Arrowhead has seen nearly a 100% reduction in the amount of face-to-face contact volunteers and staff have had with older adults, Bovee said. So they’re combating that with frequent phone check-ins.

“The services we provide are intended to have regular, consistent personal contact with them,” Bovee said. “We just have to do our best with phone conversations and a systematic questioning process that helps us really identify if their needs have changed as a result of the situation.”

In phone conversations with older adults, Bovee said if there’s any reason to believe they’re not fine when they say they are, grocery carriers are instructed to check on them while maintaining the recommended distance.


“See if you can look in the window and get them to wave to you, something to get a better handle on how they really are doing,” Bovee said.


  • Older adults in need of services can call the Senior Linkage at 800-333-2433. Someone with the Minnesota Board on Aging can help connect callers to services available in their area.
  • If someone is already connected to services and wants to know if they have changed due to COVID-19, they should call their care provider or their county case manager.
  • The Alzheimer’s Association care and support line is available 24/7 at 800-272-3900.

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