From the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the health of seniors has been a concern.
Older adults are more likely to catch the disease and more likely to suffer severe symptoms than younger people. As of late June, about 8 in 10 COVID-related deaths in the United States had been people 65 or older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But while the physical dangers to older adults have been clear, the mental toll is a growing concern. As Kaiser Health News writes in an article under the headline, “For Seniors, COVID-19 Sets Off A Pandemic Of Despair”: “As states relax coronavirus restrictions, older adults are advised, in most cases, to keep sheltering in place. But for some, the burden of isolation and uncertainty is becoming hard to bear.”
Erin Cassidy-Eagle, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, is quoted as saying, “Older adults have realized the course of being isolated is going to be much longer for them than for everyone else. And sadness, loneliness and some hopelessness have set in.”
Of course, everybody reacts differently to the isolation and the concern caused by the pandemic and stay-at-home orders. And a recent article in The Columbian detailed various ways seniors are fostering social interaction. A variety of technologies are being employed by older citizens and families to stay in touch, some of them developed specifically for seniors.
But for many seniors, there is an overbearing sense of isolation. Residents in care facilities are not allowed in-person contact with family members, being limited to conversations through windows or online meetings. And many seniors who still live on their own are reluctant to venture into public because of fear of the virus. As The Columbian reports: “Social isolation is a risk factor for depression and can lead to dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness is said to be as damaging to one’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”
The CDC recommends now-familiar precautions for seniors who go out in public, stressing that the measures are particularly important for older citizens: Wear a mask and have hand sanitizer available; try to avoid others who do not have a face covering; wash hands often; and practice social distancing.
That advice remains paramount. But as the pandemic continues, concern over the mental health of seniors grows. As the American Hospital Association writes: “A particular tragedy of this pandemic is the social disconnection between older adults and their families and friends, who ordinarily support the vital connections key for successful aging. … It’s important to remember that many older adults need to be encouraged to ask for help, including in the use of technologies, such as video conferencing, so they can engage with friends and family.”
Therein lies advice for families and friends of older adults. It is essential to reach out to seniors to ensure that their needs are being met and that isolation does not turn into despair. In addition to providing social interaction, ask those who live on their own if they need any groceries or household items or help with technology that can connect them with the outside world. For those who live in care facilities, engage with staff to ensure that a loved one’s needs are being met and ask how you can help.
For many of us, life has somewhat returned to normal with the reopening of businesses and recreation. But for many seniors in our community, continuing isolation is an opportunity for us to offer help.