Mental Health Awareness: COVID and Its Impact on Older Adults

Though it may be hard to believe, the first US cases of COVID-19 were discovered a little over a year ago. After massive state-mandated shut downs, almost every state and city is now in some form of reopening, however, case counts remain worryingly high, and life is anything but normal. The pandemic has taken a massive toll on everyone, but senior citizens face a unique combination of both physical and mental health risks that can be particularly challenging.

In fact, even before the pandemic, almost 25% of older adults were suffering from social isolation, which can increase the risk of mortality, just as smoking or obesity can. It also increases loneliness, raising the risk for depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. These problems are being exacerbated by the fact that older adults are at highest risk for severe disease from COVID-19, making it essential for them to stay home and away from others. If you have an older adult in your life, here’s what you need to know.

Sheltering in Place

Senior citizens are at the highest risk for hospitalization and death from COVID-19. In fact, the CDC states that 8 in 10 COVID deaths have occurred in adults over the age of 65. Those aged 65 to 74 are 5 times more likely to be hospitalized and 90 times more likely to die than those under age 30, and the risks only go up from there. Adults over age 85 are a shocking 13 times more likely to need hospitalization and 630 times more likely to die than people under age 30.

Therefore, it is essential for senior citizens to continue to shelter in place to reduce their risk of infection. You can help by running errands and dropping off essential items for them, but be sure to follow all COVID protocols. Wear masks, stay six feet apart, and remain outside whenever possible. If you must go indoors, or if you need to drive your loved one somewhere, keep your masks on and open the windows for increased airflow.

Adapting to a Virtual World

Virtual connection, from video chatting with loved ones to participating in Facebook groups, can be a lifeline for seniors sheltering at home. Yet it can be tough for some seniors to figure out the technology. Here are some tips for getting your loved one started with simple but highly useful tools for staying in touch.

Staying Busy

Once your loved one is comfortable going online, there are a lot of things to do, from chatting with neighbors to playing games. But seniors, like everyone else, need to be sure not to spend all their time in front of a screen. Depending on their interests, you might encourage them to take up drawing, painting, knitting, or some other artistic outlet. Jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, and word searches help keep the brain active while soaking up some of the endless hours. If more than one person lives in the house, board games are another way to stay busy.

Also encourage your loved one to get some exercise. There are a variety of TV shows and web series that are focused on staying fit at home, and some of them are targeted to older adults. Planting a garden and taking masked, socially distanced walks around the neighborhood are also possibilities for staying active while at home.

Seeking Mental Health Treatment

Although many people are coping well, rates of anxiety and depression are up across all age groups due to the pandemic. Current public health guidelines recommend older adults limit in-person social interactions as much as possible. While this is effective in limiting exposure to disease, it contributes to social isolation and loneliness.

If your loved one is showing signs of acute distress or ongoing apathy, a virtual visit with a mental health provider may be in order. Search for teletherapy or virtual mental health in your area, and find out what your loved one needs to do to make an appointment. Then create an easy step by step guide for them to follow, and be ready to walk them through the process by phone or video chat.

Vaccinations

There are currently two vaccines authorized for distribution in the United States: Pfizer and Moderna. Both require two shots several weeks apart. More vaccines, including a single-dose option from Johnson and Johnson, are expected to be approved in the coming months.

All states are now vaccinating older adults, though the minimum qualifying age varies by state. If your loved one qualifies, help him or her through the process of registering for an appointment and getting to the vaccination site. Depending on where you live, this could be a complicated production. This state by state guide from WebMD will show you where to start.

Comparison with Other Populations

COVID lockdowns have impacted us all, but the effects are different for various populations. For young children, the primary concern generally focuses on whether or not to return to in-person school. Teens often have multiple concerns, from figuring out a virtual social life to planning for college in an uncertain world. Adults are typically juggling working from home vs returning to the office, while simultaneously managing childcare, safely shopping for family needs, and taking care of their older loved ones.

Most seniors have the benefit of being retired and long out of school, so there’s nothing that they *have* to do during this time. But the tradeoff is that they are both the most likely to get severely ill, and the least likely to feel totally comfortable switching to a virtual world. Fortunately, with a bit of coaching, most older adults are able to learn to use technology to help stay connected and involved while sheltering in place. With two vaccines approved and more on the way, we should be able to put lockdowns in the rearview mirror later this year.

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