Bob Linscott’s specialties feel essential, now more than ever.
The assistant director of the LGBT Aging Project at the Fenway Institute in Boston, he has spent his career focused on the needs of older adults.
Linscott’s other area of focus is mindfulness and meditation, a practice he teaches at Mass General and Brown University, and brings to older people in assisted living communities.
I asked him to appear on Taking Care, a series where mental health professionals join me for public Zoom conversations about how to deal during this scary and complicated time. We spoke about the experience of older adults right now, and how younger people can best support family and friends who might be isolated and hearing scary health news.
We also meditated. Literally.
You can catch our full interview — and join our short meditation practice — by watching the video at globeevents.splashthat.com. Below is a very edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Meredith Goldstein: How did you develop an interest in taking care of older people?
Bob Linscott: I had just finished my master’s degree at Harvard Divinity School. I was really passionate about Native American traditions. I went out and lived with the Navajo people for a couple years, just to learn as much as I could. Being there on the reservation, you can’t help but to be so immersed in this culture where the elders are the most important part of the community. When you want to get something done, often you have to look for the oldest woman — and that’s the opposite of what was going on here.
MG: Can you talk about the experience of older adults right now? And the people you work with specifically?
BL: For so many of our LGBT older adults today, they’re aging alone. This population was [sometimes] incredibly distant from their own families. There’s so much shame that was involved, so that gap between their families of origin grew wider and wider. So what do we have now? We’ve got this population [where] so many of them are aging alone and afraid of mainstream organizations. Suddenly, when we’re all sheltering in place, who’s checking in on this population?
MG: It sounds like part of your work right now is figuring out a way to be in touch with people.
BL: We’re creating these massive volunteer calling networks to try and call everyone, and [we] go through a series of basic questions. “How are you doing? What’s life like right now? Do you have any immediate needs, groceries, medicines, things like that? Are you having any meaningful social contacts?” Those phone calls have been going really well.
MG: A reader wrote in to ask if you have any advice for people taking care of older adults with dementia who don’t remember what the coronavirus is from one day to the next.
BL: Doing things in really small doses for people — because you don’t want to give too much information. You don’t know when you’re going to start triggering more stressors and more anxiety. But thinking about continuing to reinforce the piece about washing our hands and why we need to stay indoors in really simple terms. “This is what’s keeping us safe. We’re going to do this together.” And another thing, too, is you’ve got to be thinking a few steps ahead. Because if you are sole provider and you get sick somehow, you’ve got to think about gaps in your caregiving coverage. So what is plan B if you get sick? The mindfulness piece of self-care is critical for care providers. You’ve got to take care of your own self and make sure your stress level and anxiety level is at a good place, then work with the people that you’re caring for.
MG: A reader asks, “My parents are in Florida, and my brother and I have a Zoom call with them every few days to keep in touch. I feel like we only discuss the virus. I would like to talk about anything else because discussing the virus causes anxiety for me. Is this unrealistic?”
BL: To that reader I would say be proactive and take control of it. Say, for yourself, "I need a little break from COVID for a bit. What’s the weather like there?” Have a list of other topics to get into.
MG: I’m concerned about the experience of older people in my community who might be alone. But I don’t want to be a nosy neighbor, checking in on people I don’t know well. As a single person who’s trying to mind her own business, how can I be a caring neighbor?
BL: One of the greatest things right now is people are returning to the mail again and writing little notes. If you know where the older adults are on your street, you can just write a little card. Just say, “Hey, I’m Meredith I just live up the street. I would love to chat some time.” Or even just say, “I’m doing this by myself, too.”
Linscott offered some resources for older people seeking community — and for those who want to volunteer.
LGBT Aging Project at Fenway Health
Fenway Health offers Weekly Zoom drop-ins for LGBT older adults, and is taking volunteers for wellness calls to LGBT elders. www.lgbtagingproject.org
This organization matches volunteers with all older adults (virtually and by phone). www.fw4elders.org
Linscott also recommends these free community mindfulness programs:
The Mindfulness Center at Brown
Center for Mindfulness at Mass Memorial Health Care
Join me for the next live installment of Taking Care on Thursday. It’ll feature a conversation with Joy Allen, chair of the music therapy department at Berklee College of Music. Register and submit questions (and your comfort song of choice!) at takingcare6.splashthat.com/.
Meredith Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This interview was transcribed and edited by Goldstein and Globe correspondent Grace Griffin.