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How To Care For Older People In The Pandemic (And A Printable Guide!)

NOEL KING, HOST:

We know that older people are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. And from the beginning, the message from public health experts has been, keep them safe, often by isolating them. That has not been good for many people's mental health. So how can we keep older folks both safe and happy? NPR's Malaka Gharib asked a relative.

MALAKA GHARIB, BYLINE: So I wanted to do this story because I was worried about my grandma, who I call Nanay - Tagalog for mother. Her name is Felisa Mercene, a Filipino American immigrant. She is 92, lives in Southern California and is proud to say she was born on...

FELISA MERCENE: January 30, 1928.

GHARIB: Nanay moved to the States in the 1980s, after she retired as a professor in the Philippines. She's usually a sassy, independent lady. But when the pandemic hit, she was really scared.

MERCENE: Malaka, I'm so afraid because, as I have read, No. 1 risk is senior citizen.

GHARIB: Since I was a little girl, Nanay lived with my aunt, Tita Pinky. Tita Pinky's house is, like, the center of family activity. Relatives would come and eat and hang out, and Nanay loved it. But Tita Pinky is a doctor. And when the pandemic came along, she started leading her hospital's COVID response. Suddenly, we were all afraid of Nanay getting sick, so we decided it would be safer if she moved in with my uncle in order to isolate her from the possibility of getting COVID. But Nanay didn't want to move.

MERCENE: Because of my garden, I do not want to go away because of my flowers.

GHARIB: So was it a good idea for our family to move Nanay? Silvia Perel-Levin is with the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse at the U.N. I asked her what she thought.

SILVIA PEREL-LEVIN: You have said, we have isolated our grandmother instead of saying, my grandmother chose to isolate herself. I would say that the first mistake was to make a decision for her.

GHARIB: Oh, no. Did we really not consider Nanay's feelings? Perel-Levin says there's some common assumptions that younger people make about older people - that they're helpless, that they might have dementia. But she says that's wrong.

PEREL-LEVIN: Just think if it were you. Would you like somebody to do this to you?

GHARIB: It turns out, Nanay actually did have a choice - kind of. My uncles eventually gave her an ultimatum. Do you want the flowers, or do you want your health? So Nanay packed enough clothes for a week and moved in with my uncle, Tito Ovid. He's got an extra bedroom, a swimming pool and a nice, big garden. But as the weeks rolled by, I wondered, was Nanay happy there?

Perel-Levin says if you want to know, all you have to do is ask. Well, I do ask, I think. I usually get an I'm OK. But Perel-Levin wants me to dig deeper and listen. So I did. And Nanay told me that Tito Ovid and his wife treat her...

MERCENE: Like a princess.

GHARIB: ...Like a princess. Well, that's good. I waited a beat, and then Nanay said something else.

MERCENE: You know, Malaka, to tell you the truth, sometimes I cry alone because I long for my room, I long for my flowers, I long for the surroundings.

GHARIB: This broke my heart. Alicia del Prado is a Filipino American psychologist. She says that Filipinos come from a family-centric culture. And when they have to split up, it's really painful.

ALICIA DEL PRADO: Filipino families, in general, really show a lot of their love and connection just by physically being together.

GHARIB: And these days, Filipinos have to separate more because so many of them, like my aunt, they work in a risky field - health care. In California, where my family lives, a fifth of the state's nurses, for example, are Filipino.

DEL PRADO: What happens, then, when you can't see the people that kind of keep you sane, so to speak - that keep you feeling yourself?

GHARIB: Thankfully, my family has found a way to stay connected. They drop by with food and call Nanay often. But I wondered, how else could I, 3,000 miles away from my grandmother, possibly help?

Bette Ann Moskowitz is the author of "Finishing Up: On Aging And Ageism," and she is 80 years old. She suggested I say...

BETTE ANN MOSKOWITZ: Grandma, I know you're not happy here, and I get it. What could you do to make it better for you if you were going to stay? How can we help?

GHARIB: But before I could ask Nanay these questions, she figured out how to help herself.

MERCENE: I had no choice.

GHARIB: She had to do something, she says, so she will not be bored. So she sprung into action. She asked Tito Ovid to go to the store and buy her some flowers. Nanay had decided to grow herself a new garden because, she realized, she wouldn't be going home anytime soon.

Malaka Gharib, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Malaka Gharib is the deputy editor and digital strategist on NPR's global health and development team. She covers topics such as the refugee crisis, gender equality and women's health. Her work as part of NPR's reporting teams has been recognized with two Gracie Awards: in 2019 for How To Raise A Human, a series on global parenting, and in 2015 for #15Girls, a series that profiled teen girls around the world.