COVID-19 has affected everyone around the globe, perhaps no group more than the elderly. The pandemic has caused us all to experience grief, whether it is the loss of income, disruption of our normal routines, or the loss of physical connection with loved ones.
The loss of connection has hit our elderly the most, many of whom live in assisted living facilities or independently in their own homes. When the pandemic hit and the world went into some level of lockdown, normal social interaction disappeared, and so did our connection with loved ones.
Older adults are especially vulnerable to serious complications from COVID-19, so there has been extra attention to keeping them as safe as possible. While this is a wise decision, it has caused an increase in depression, anxiety, and general loneliness for our elderly population. Social isolation often results in loneliness, which is a factor significantly associated with depression in elderly adults.
Senior living facilities have cut back on social interactions
Assisted living facilities and nursing homes have drastically limited social interaction within their facilities. It has been typical for these communities to eliminate group activities, gatherings, and dining together to protect the residents. These in-house activities may have been the only social interaction for many residents. Many facilities restricted residents from leaving their rooms, even for a walk in the hallway or outside.
There also are limited options for exercise. Several studies have shown that even light to moderate exercise can have a significant positive effect on mood and cognitive function in the elderly. Although the lockdowns may be temporary, these effects are likely to be long lasting and could pose significant risks to the quality of life of the elderly population in the coming years.
This has also been a difficult time for those of us who are baby boomers dealing with living parents. Lockdowns, social distancing, and losing all physical connection with our aging parents is stressful for them and for us.
Many people severely ill with COVID have died alone in hospitals over the past year. They were not allowed to have visitors and could not connect with loved ones as they succumbed to the virus and became one of the more than 556,000 deaths so far in the United States alone. Occasionally, nursing staff is able to find a moment to facilitate a brief connection for these patients. This is often accomplished by using their own phones so the dying patient’s love ones can communicate with them and say goodbye.
Some senior living facilities are beginning to loosen visitation restrictions as the percentage of the population fully vaccinated continues to rise. Hopefully, we can soon fully connect with our aging parents again. Until then, we need to acknowledge how this social isolation is taking a toll on the mental health of our elderly population. If you are wondering what you can do, here are a few suggestions:
Connect and communicate
The best medicine in this scenario is connection and communication. You can help by making additional phone calls and video chat check-ins. We often don’t think of sending letters these days with current technology, but everyone enjoys getting mail they can open and read. Getting a card or letter in the mail may brighten an otherwise lonely day.
Communication can be even more vital if your parent lives alone. Having a pet is often helpful for people who live alone but is not the same as a loved one, friend, or even a neighbor checking in on them.
Using social media sites can help seniors stay connected to friends and family across the country. Many social media platforms have built-in video chat functions that add the dimension of being seen, even if it’s through a computer screen or phone. You can engage in virtual togetherness activities, like doing a video chat over dinner or just visiting in a group chat regularly, and being able to see the grandkids can be the highlight of any grandparent’s day.
It’s important to pay attention to behavioral, emotional, or cognitive changes. People deal with stress in different ways. Take notice of behavioral changes like difficulty communicating, inability to feel pleasure, increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or drugs.
Emotional changes may include anxiety, depression or increased sadness and grief, anger, feeling overwhelmed or hopeless, feeling afraid, or the onset of insomnia. Cognitive changes often include the loss of memory, confusion, and poor concentration. You may notice something when talking with your loved one on the phone or video chat.
It is critical to be on the lookout for signs of depression, especially if your parent or parents live in a facility or on their own. You may notice things like neglecting personal care, a change in appetite or sleeping patterns, being tearful, sad, angry, or exhibiting outbursts. When your parent is just not themselves, it is important to seek professional advice. Some of the symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to depression. When we are watching for COVID-19, we often miss these signs of depression.
Consider helping your loved one schedule a telehealth or virtual visit with a mental health professional. Most insurance companies are loosening guidelines on virtual visits in light of COVID-19, and mental health checkups via telehealth technology can be helpful.
Do not depend on the staff of a senior living facility to take action. It may be up to you to advocate on your loved one’s behalf, providing the connection and vigilance they need to stay safe and healthy.
Bonnie Groessl is a best-selling author, podcast host, holistic nurse practitioner and success coach. Her mission is to educate, empower and facilitate your well-being while nurturing the mind-body-spirit connection. You can find links to her books, guided meditation audios, blog and podcast at bonniegroessl.com.