How COVID-19 Affects the Mental Health of Seniors
[ Article was originally posted on https://socalsunrisemh.com ]
Fortunately, doctors and psychologists can utilize methods to help older individuals disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s socially isolating effects. Additionally, seniors can take steps to mitigate impacts on their mental health, including the use of available technology.
Effects of COVID-19 on the Senior Population
COVID-19 is especially dangerous for the older population. If they contract the virus, they are extremely vulnerable to developing a severe illness, making it increasingly important for them to practice social distancing and take other safety precautions. Social distancing among the older adult population means that they may need to limit their interactions with caregivers and loved ones. This lack of connection can lead to feelings of loneliness and anxiety, as well as uncertainty and fear related to the pandemic.2
Recently, COVID-19 cases have again been on the rise, which may make it difficult for older adults to maintain hope. They may feel stuck in social isolation, unable to see an end to the isolating measures. These safety guidelines that have been put in place to protect those at risk have created new dangers for older adults, as they are more lonely and inactive than usual.3
Pandemic or not, seniors are more likely than others to experience social isolation, financial challenges, illness, grief, and loss. These risk factors create more significant anxiety and depression rates, increasing mortality and other undesirable outcomes when older adults have underlying medical conditions.1
Coronavirus has created an environment in which these mental health issues are likely to increase for seniors, especially those with pre-existing psychiatric illnesses. Social distancing can increase anxiety, depression, fear, isolation, and loneliness. Additionally, the lack of physical connection to friends and family can also create mental health issues as this support is often an essential aspect of successful aging.1
Because of the increasing risk of mental health issues for seniors created by the pandemic, it is vital to encourage them to ask for help and utilize technologies, like video conferencing, as a way to connect with friends and family.1
Effects of Social Isolation and Information Overload
While the platforms do provide some benefits, other people report a negative experience using social media. We still do not know enough about the long-term impacts of social media use, and current trends suggest that there may be a strong connection between social media and mental health conditions.
These may include negative feelings about their life or appearance, an intense fear of missing out (FOMO), or worsened symptoms of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, or self-harm. Certain online activities, such as cyberbullying, also have a severe impact on mental health.
Pandemics have significant psychological and social impacts and can result in anxiety, panic, adjustment disorders, chronic stress, and insomnia for some people. Elderly populations are disproportionately affected by social isolation because of their bio-psychosocial vulnerabilities.4
In general, loneliness is a public health issue that significantly affects seniors. In 2012 and 2018, more than 50% of community-dwelling people over the age of 60 reported feelings of loneliness. Chronic loneliness can substantially lower the quality of life and contributes to increased illness and hospital visits. 5
During the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing has been an effective strategy used to fight the virus. Unfortunately, these social distancing measures have contributed significantly to increased loneliness, particularly in nursing homes, which on its own contributes to depression, anxiety disorders, and suicide.4
The self-isolation safety measure also significantly affects seniors who primarily engage in social contact outside of the home. This social contact includes daycare venues, community centers, and places of worship. Social distancing places those who rely on this kind of social involvement at greater risk. It also significantly affects seniors who already experience loneliness and isolation.6
The psychological and social impacts of a pandemic increase the necessity for social connectedness, especially when seniors are subject to stigmatization, which can ultimately lead to neglect. Unfortunately, many older people are not comfortable with today’s technology, making it even harder for them to connect. Technology has been a significant source of connection for others who are socially distancing.4
Evidence suggests that social isolation is detrimental to the health and wellbeing of those who experience it. Social isolation and loneliness are major risk factors linked to poor physical and mental health. They can lead to increased blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diminished immune system functioning, depression, anxiety, low cognitive functioning, increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and even mortality.7
Social isolation creates a 50% increased risk of developing dementia, a 29% increased risk of incident coronary heart disease, and a 32% increased risk of stroke. These health issues affect older adults at a higher rate during the pandemic, as they are most encouraged to practice social isolation and are already at risk of developing these issues.7
Social isolation creates an increase risk of:
Heart Disease 29%
There is an information overload that seniors experience during a pandemic. Their confusion related to technology and media jargon creates the need for a more straightforward explanation by someone else. Seniors may also experience cognitive impairment, issues with wandering, irritability, and psychotic symptoms, making it difficult to follow the precautions of distancing and hygiene.4
The difficulties associated with these issues ultimately create the necessity for even more explanation. This overload of information can lead to paranoia and mistrust, which could then cause these seniors to avoid quarantine and experience serious health consequences as a result.4
How Doctors and Psychologists Can Help
Thankfully, psychologists can help mitigate the negative impacts of social distancing, closures, and information overload by engaging in certain practices with their patients, including: 8
Staying in contact with their patients. Psychologists should reach out to their patients during this pandemic and let them know plans for upcoming visits and how they will keep in touch. If a psychologist’s office remains open, they should inform patients of the risks involved with meeting in person. 8
Considering holding sessions over the phone. Older patients may have a more difficult time using new technology, so meeting over the phone may be the best option, depending on the patient. 8
Encouraging older patients to remain in contact with their friends and family. Psychologists can encourage their senior patients to utilize video chat apps, telephones, and even letters to do so. 8
Promoting intergenerational connection. If a psychologist has younger patients, they can encourage those patients to contact their grandparents and the older people in their lives who may be having a more difficult time. This contact can include anything from making a phone call to running errands for them. 8
Helping family members to keep their older relatives safe. Psychologists can assist families in developing effective ways to keep the seniors in their family at home. It is best for family members to avoid saying things like “we are afraid for you,” which is often met with resistance. Family members should instead give them an important reason to stay home. These reasons could include protecting younger people with serious illnesses or an activity they might enjoy that takes place at home. 8
More measures can be put in place by the health care system to mitigate seniors’ risks further. All over the world, seniors utilize the health care system much more often than younger populations. The health care system has the resources necessary to develop methods to identify social isolation and loneliness. 7
Healthcare providers can assess whether someone’s condition is acute or chronic and use their findings to develop appropriate interventions for their patients. They can then utilize these interventions in other areas and new populations. Schools and training programs for healthcare should include education and training that focuses on social isolation and loneliness and proper intervention.7
What Seniors Can Do
There are a variety of ways seniors can meaningfully engage in their homes and communities. There are also many resources, services, and programs that can be utilized. For example, some states have developed free programs that connect isolated residents with counselors and support groups by phone and online during the pandemic.3 In addition to taking advantage of these resources, or if these resources are not available, older adults can utilize the following steps on their own to remain active and engaged: 3
Plan out the day.
Keeping up with regular routines, such as getting out of bed, getting dressed, and engaging in small activities, can help the day to seem less mundane. It is also important to plan time for online classes, phone calls with friends and family, reading, puzzles, cooking, gardening, and other enjoyable activities. 3
Engage in physical activity.
Skipping online interactions in favor of in-person meetings can help you foster stronger connections with the people around you. First, try cutting down on your daily usage — limiting your time on social media to 10 minutes a day may result in lower depression and loneliness levels, but you can start with an hour or two and gradually scale down. 3
Be aware of your risk.
There are resources available to assess the risk of being socially isolated. The local assistance directory can provide additional support services if necessary.3
Take precautions when leaving home.
There are new CDC guidelines that explain how older adults can stay safe outside of their homes. These guidelines include carrying a cloth face covering, tissues, and hand sanitizer, encouraging others to wear a cloth face covering when in public, and avoiding close contact with those who are not wearing face coverings as much as possible.3
Think of other people.
It can feel rewarding to be of service to others and reach out to those who may need to hear a friend’s voice over the phone. Also, volunteering can have many positive health benefits, and there are various online opportunities to do so. 3
Accept help from others.
Several individuals and organizations are working to keep seniors connected. It is vital to remain open to these opportunities and accept support from family members, friends, health care providers, and social service agencies. 3
The Role of Technology
During the Coronavirus pandemic, it is essential to develop technology-based interventions to improve seniors’ social connections in the United States. Mobile technologies are necessary because they transform how we interact with others, gather information, find resources, and deliver services. 7
Given the current social isolation seniors currently face due to the pandemic, it is crucial to develop applications that take into account input from older adults and their family members. There are existing evidence-based interventions for older adults that can be used in developing instant messaging and video apps with the goal of social connection. Social support on social media, such as information resources, health promotion and counseling, and problem-solving, can be utilized to enhance the effects of professional help. It is essential to maintain ethics and legality when using technology in interventions for isolation and loneliness.7
There are currently online technologies available that provide social support networks to those who are feeling socially isolated and alone. Some older individuals may have issues accessing more complicated technologies. It is useful for them to use simple technologies and engage in more frequent phone calls with friends and family, voluntary organizations, health care professionals, or community outreach programs that provide support through social isolation. Additionally, cognitive behavioral therapies can occur online or over the phone to improve wellbeing.9
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