There was a time when wearing a mask meant something fun was happening: Mardi Gras, Halloween, your children’s superhero phase. The mask could be partial face or full over the head. It could be helmet-like for complete concussion protection, or simple with some magical powers.
Masks worn by Hollywood heroes and villains spoke volumes about who they were and what their motives meant for humanity. Insightfully designed, masks hinted at personality traits, keeping the audience engaged emotionally with the character.
In movies and TV shows from days gone by, it would hide identities and safeguard privacy. Often covering just the eyes, the audience easily recognized the wearer’s true identity, yet somehow everyone on camera remained clueless.
Our delightful engagement with masks has certainly turned a corner. Superheroes have changed into health care workers. And the villains, so small they can only be seen through a microscope, don’t wear masks — yet make us do so. And, unlike the plot of a superhero movie, we can’t guess who’s encountered the bad guy and who hasn’t.
The new villain in our lives has made wearing a mask imperative, and required in public buildings. For the average person, wearing one may be inconvenient, sometimes uncomfortable, but not usually life-threatening or life-altering. For the elderly and seniors who have compromised health or disability struggles, a mask is both a lifesaver and a bigger challenge.
It can be quite difficult for a hearing impaired senior to understand someone speaking behind a mask. The mask not only muffles sound, but also doesn't allow the listener to read lips and facial expressions. This makes it difficult to hear, see and interpret speech.
An older adult may also have difficulty getting a mask to fit properly. Size and style play into this. Having to wear a hearing aid behind the ear makes for a more difficult fit. And, tying a mask behind one’s head is difficult for even the most dexterous. For a senior with limited mobility in the shoulders or fingers, it is nearly impossible. An ill-fitting mask requires frequent, unsanitary adjustments, compromising its safety.
Seniors, who are more likely to wear glasses full time, also struggle with those glasses fogging. This can be even more unsettling if the senior is dealing with vision loss or an eye disease. Tucking a Kleenex between the mask and the bridge of the nose under the glasses, or changing breathing patterns can help, but may not always solve this problem.
Additionally, those who suffer from Alzheimer’s and dementia often have difficulty comprehending why they must wear a mask. Even if they agree, they may not be able to remember to do so. If caregivers put masks on them, they’re very likely to constantly fuss with it or get confused and remove it.
We know a mask doesn’t block breathing, but it does change the feeling of one’s airflow. For some autistic people (of all ages) or developmentally disabled seniors, this can give the sensation of suffocating, which may be anxiety producing.
Finally, if you are computer or cell-phone savvy, purchasing a mask seems like a simple task. Many seniors, however, do not have this electronic capability, and find it difficult to find masks which both fit and are reasonably priced.
Since the Chanhassen Senior Center is now open for small gatherings and specific health services, we are seeing a wide variety of patrons dealing with these mask challenges.
What can you do to help?
- Recognize you are wearing a mask for the vulnerable adult’s sake. You may not be worried about contracting the virus, but they are. Your mask will protect them.
- Be gracious, patient and understanding of the seniors and disabled adults around you who may be dealing with any of the above mask challenges.
- If you are making cloth masks with either elastic ends or beads for adjusting, consider donating some to your local senior center or senior living facility.
- Help seniors locate good-fitting masks, as well as the adjusters used to connect masks behind the head when the looping elastic doesn’t work correctly.
- Give them space. If you see a senior not wearing a mask or struggling with it, there may be many reasons associated with why. Keep the six-foot distance to help them stay safe.
- Speak up. If you are trying to talk to a senior with a mask and they can’t understand you, raise the volume of your voice and enunciate slowly and clearly. In the event the senior has significant hearing loss, the new mandate allows you to remove your mask (keeping a six-foot distance) to communicate.
Looking for more ways to help the seniors in your community? Contact the Senior Center for more information and watch for your Fall Connections Newsletter in early August for class and program offerings.