Interview"The Elderly Can Be Good Role Models"

24 March 2020

Interview with Andreas Kruse on profound life knowledge and special needs in crisis situations like the coronavirus pandemic

Prof. Dr Andreas Kruse, Director of the Institute of Gerontology at Heidelberg University, discusses the special needs of old and care-dependent people in crisis situations like the current coronavirus pandemic. The elderly are especially reliant on accurate information and emotional support, yet they have profound life knowledge that sets them apart. "The psychological resilience of many old people should not be underestimated," states the Heidelberg researcher. "They can be good role models."

Andreas Kruse

How do the elderly face a crisis situation like the coronavirus pandemic?

The old and the young respond very differently to this type of situation. Recommendations for sensitising the general public must therefore also be different. Many old people possess a profound knowledge of life. They have personally lived through hardships, crises, and extreme situations. In such situations they have, in many ways, developed faith for a good future, hope for an ultimately positive development, and a particular sensitivity to possible risks and dangers. Many elderly people exhibit this distinct reaction. Their psychological resilience should not be underestimated. They can deal with sometimes considerable burdens and limitations prudently and thoughtfully.

What are the special needs of the elderly in this situation?

The elderly rely especially on obtaining highly accurate information. What should they be protected from? Why are specific measures necessary and what purpose do they serve? Older people are quite open to hearing that these measures are first and foremost for their safety. It is also important for them to feel that they are an important part of our society, of their family, and of social networks outside families. Ensuring they have this experience cannot be overestimated in terms of its significance for their quality of life, well-being, and resilience.

The elderly belong to the risk group; they are especially vulnerable. What is the best way to protect them, especially if they depend on help from carers?

First of all, protecting them from infection is most important; this has priority. Protecting them from infection means minimising contact with other people. For nursing staff, regardless of whether care is provided on an in- or outpatient basis, regular swabs can be taken to ensure there is no infection present. This is especially important, though still neglected far too often. Healthcare professionals urgently need mandatory face masks and should have access to protective clothing. These and other familiar basic hygienic measures must be instituted without delay. Relief to personnel should also be provided in the form of financing from medical and nursing insurance as well as financing from taxes.

Care homes may no longer receive visitors. What effects – including psychological – can that have on the inhabitants? How can one provide for variety nonetheless?

Care homes face a truly major challenge: Employees must now provide the close contact that occupants previously enjoyed with their regular visitors. Personal conversation is particularly important, especially for those suffering from chronic pain, psychological changes and dementia diseases. People of advanced years generally tend to depend even more on intimate conversation. In extreme situations, this dependency becomes even greater. That is why care homes must be given the financial resources they need to provide for support, also with regard to social communication. Former nurses, social workers, ministers, doctors or psychologists could step in.

Are there ways that family members could provide support remotely?

This is where telephone calls, personal letters and expressions of sympathy, especially from young people, come into play. Older people with some technical and computer experience should take immediate advantage of electronic media and platforms and receive the appropriate support. Video calls or also electronic recordings can be just as effective in crisis situations as face-to-face contact, when familiar voices are heard, and familiar faces are seen. An emotionally positive message is crucial.

What can we learn from one another in this situation?

With their life knowledge and ability to reflect on experiences, older people can be good role models – and they should be told so. Young people have to learn: They may not have the same risk as the elderly, but they do also face a clearly discernible risk. They need to be instructed on how solidarity is already being practiced even by members of their own age group. They should not endanger the effects of this solidarity through careless and thoughtless behaviour.

Personal background

Psychologist and gerontology researcher Prof. Dr Andreas Kruse has been Director of the Institute for Gerontology at Heidelberg University since 1997. He is a member of key national and international policy boards – including the Commission for the Report on the Elderly of the Federal Government and the German Ethics Council. Prof. Kruse has received numerous awards for his scientific accomplishments.