As the new realities created by the coronavirus stretch on through the summer, many seniors can feel like they’ve been forced into an unwanted endurance contest. With quarantines, visitation restrictions, canceled activities, the threat of outbreaks, and limited access to family and friends, this season can deliver one disappointment, fear, or heartbreak after another. Burdens like these can become hard to bear over time. While seniors may have little control over their situation, they can take steps to protect and even nourish their own mental health.
Vulnerable Mental Health
Mental health is a measure of a person’s psychological and emotional well-being. Good mental health helps us address and recover from stresses, griefs, and challenges. During seasons of distress, our well-being can be put to the test. The isolation and loneliness prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic can especially strain seniors’ mental health and contribute to depression, anxiety, problems with thinking, and worsening medical conditions.
According to one poll, older adults were less likely than younger adults to claim that worry and stress related to the coronavirus negatively impacted their mental health. Past research has indicated, however, that older adults are more naturally at risk for anxiety and depression due to loneliness and loss as they age. Protective measures like social distancing and quarantine can increase feelings of isolation and anxiety. Limited interactions with loved ones and caregivers can exacerbate feelings of fear and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic.
During a demanding season like this, the risks of anxiety and depression increase. Seniors may even begin to wonder if their life still has value. Eleanor Feldman Barbera, an elder care psychologist in New York City notes, “Almost everybody that I’m seeing has some kind of adjustment disorder because their whole worlds have been turned upside down.”
Ways to Help
The emotional and mental pain many older adults are experiencing is very real. Acknowledging and facing the changes, fears, and concerns brought on by the coronavirus pandemic can do a lot of good for seniors’ mental health. If you are caring for a loved one, noticing and listening to their concerns can go a long way.
Dr. Gary Kennedy, director of the division of geriatric psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City says, “Don’t try to counter the person’s perception and offer false reassurance. Instead, say, yes, this is bad, no doubt about it. It’s understandable to be angry, to be sad. Then provide a sense of companionship. Tell the person, ‘I can’t change this situation but I can be with you. I’ll call tomorrow or in a few days and check in with you again.’”
Invite your loved one to remember past hardships as well as triumphs. Seniors have lived through difficult seasons and gained skills because of them. Dr. Kennedy goes on to say, “Try to explore what made life worth living before the person started feeling this way. Remind them of ways they’ve coped with adversity in the past.”
Seniors can also reach out to a close friend or pastor. Connecting with another person over fears and concerns can be reassuring and encouraging. For a person of faith, praying with a friend or pastor and engaging with Scripture verses can reorient a worried mind and comfort a weary heart.
Simple, engaging activities can help alleviate stress as well. Playing games, reading, even taking virtual museum tours can stimulate seniors’ minds and remind them of the world outside their door. Watching funny movies can bring humor and healthy laughter into an otherwise heavy setting.
Some older adults may openly share their feelings and concerns. Others may describe physical symptoms instead. Julie Lutz, a geropsychologist and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Rochester says that symptoms like fatigue, difficulty sleeping, and difficulty concentrating can indicate that a person is struggling. In addition, Lutz says to pay attention if someone expresses frequent concerns about being a burden to others or has become notably withdrawn.
When seniors show signs of distress, it can be important to reach out for help. Whether your loved one is at home, in a nursing home, or in the hospital, there are mental health resources available.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) COVID-19 Resource and Information Guide https://www.nami.org/covid-19-guide
The American Psychological Association (APA) page for COVID-19 Information and Resources https://www.apa.org/topics/covid-19/
APA Resource for Finding Local Mental Health Resources
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) 24-hour hotline: 1-800-662-4357.
The national suicide prevention hotline for those in acute distress: 1-800-273-8255.
The Cedars Retirement Community
The Cedars Retirement Community is a beautiful lakeside retirement residence located just outside of Fort Wayne, Indiana. The Cedars believes in providing the highest quality of life and opportunity for seniors. We are operating with great care during this pandemic and are following all guidelines issued by the CDC and ISDH. Please contact us with any questions you may have.