Lily Sarafan is the CEO of Home Care Assistance (HCA). In an interview she did with the WAM Weekly, Sarafan explains what HCA had done to keep their employees and clients safe during the pandemic and gives advice on what family members can do during this difficult time to help keep their loved ones safe and engaged.

WAM: As the CEO of HCA, you oversee an enormous team providing caregiving support to people both at home as well as in caregiving facilities. What are you seeing in terms of caregiving needs during this pandemic that is new – and how are people in American homes and caregiving facilities dealing with the new challenges posed by COVID?

Sarafan: COVID-19 has upended our world and the senior care industry has been particularly impacted. The pandemic has put a spotlight on home-based aging solutions for the vulnerable older adult population and has also elevated the urgency of safety and risk management protocols in our day to day operations in which thousands of caregiver employees provide essential care to seniors across the country. Ensuring the safety of our clients has always been a priority, but what is new is the degree to which we are screening and training to limit potential exposure risk and the level of protective supplies we are securing nationwide to support these efforts. To this end, Home Care Assistance created a 7 Step Caregiver Screening Process, which includes temperature checks, symptom and exposure reporting and more. We encourage our team to keep their circles of individuals with whom they interact small, and this holds especially true with caregivers.

WAM: A lot of people are concerned about bringing people into their homes who have not quarantined with them. The risk of being infected feels real, especially  for the vulnerable elderly. What is the best advice you can offer families right now who need to get safe help?

Sarafan: One-on-one care is typically the best option for seniors that need support as this model limits exposure risk. A good home care provider should make sure that all caregiver employees are taking appropriate measures to minimize their exposure as well as undergoing proper training on PPE and infection control to help protect their clients. My advice to families, if they are employing a caregiver, is to ask their care team about their COVID-19 protocols and to be aware that caregivers may be interacting with multiple seniors and staff members, especially in senior community environments.

WAM: How are you advising families to cope who have not seen loved ones now for going on half a year?  What’s the most effective way to help both the person in the facility– as well as the family members –all of whom may be worried and anxious that they cannot see one another in person?

Sarafan: This is a tough one as many of us haven’t seen our elderly loved ones since the beginning of the pandemic in order to best protect them. I would advise families to remember that they are staying socially distanced out of love and focus on the protection they are affording their senior family member. I also encourage family members to lean on technology such as Facetime, Skype or Zoom to stay connected to their loved one. We’ve found that our caregivers’ ability to aid our clients in using technology to connect socially and stay engaged and entertained has provided immense value during this time. Families are also using a combination of testing and quarantine protocols to see their loved ones in person when circumstances allow. Most of all, we all have immense gratitude for the social, clinical, and community team members who are interacting with our loved ones in the cases where we cannot.

WAM: What is the feedback you are getting about the consequences—physically and emotionally—on those who’ve been in isolation or separated from loved ones? Is there concern the impact may be long term?

Sarfan: Social isolation and loneliness and their associated emotional and health risks were already critical issues facing the older adult population – especially those with cognitive decline. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these challenges in numerous ways. COVID-19 will be changing all of our lives for the long haul, which is why it is essential that we as professional caregivers, friends and family members of seniors prioritize expanding the use of digital technology to promote engagement. At Home Care Assistance, we provide regular virtual group activity classes through our Mindfit Series (more on Mindfit here) to help our seniors have fun, socialize and stimulate their minds. I encourage all seniors to consider creative virtual engagement and stimulation while isolated. There are many ideas compiled in our Life Enrichment Guide, which can be downloaded for free here.

WAM: At a policy level, what has this pandemic taught us about how we care for our elderly family  members and is there something we’re learning about how to improve our systems of family care, especially for those with Alzheimer’s or dementia?

Sarafan: While the pandemic already underscored the needs and vulnerabilities of our aging population, it has also highlighted the financial challenges family members face when trying to secure care for their loved ones, particularly when family caregiving may not be an option in our current environment. There are many policy platforms that can be more supportive of our aging population, and in particular the 50% of the 85+ population that has some form of dementia. One piece of our public infrastructure that can be addressed is helping families plan for the financial costs associated with care, the same way we have education and resources to help families set up 529 college savings accounts. Caregiving for a loved one with dementia is incredibly rewarding but also generates well-documented emotional and physical burnout. When families need professional care support, we should have policies and education that make that care more accessible.