Stephen Ingroum sits in his electric wheelchair in the sunny courtyard at The Oaks at Timberline Rehabilitation Center in Vancouver. Others stroll around the courtyard, soaking in the sun and getting some exercise — it’s one of the few ways residents like Ingroum can socialize and breathe fresh air.
Mental health went into a steep decline and the world was put into a state of isolation when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020. The aging population was perhaps hit hardest. A National Library of Medicine survey from July 2020 showed that 46 percent of adults 65 years and older felt that their mental health was negatively influenced by the pandemic.
Ingroum was one of them. When the pandemic first started, residents at Timberline were put into individual isolation for a month. When it all first happened, Ingroum said it was disorienting.
“One day, they shut the door,” he said. “They didn’t let the door open. And I felt that nobody was answering my light. I started freaking out.”
Ingroum said he didn’t have access to technology or a clock at first, which made being alone much worse for him. Eventually, after his son gave him a laptop and a cellphone, isolation became easier to bear. He started watching the news and having virtual chats with family daily.
Though he was coping, Ingroum said it was tough to watch friends struggle with isolation. Many, he said, haven’t been as lucky to have a good support network or access to technology. Over the past three years, he said, he’s known seven different people who have died as a consequence of isolation.
David Agnor, executive director of Senior Connections, a company that offers complete psychological and psychiatric services to nursing homes and assisted-living residents in Clark County, said that aging adults can have a tougher time coping with isolation than others.
“We are relational creatures,” Agnor said. “That’s why we get up in the morning. You take that away, and you stop being a person. That’s where you see people begin to fade.”
Agnor said the need for mental health assistance skyrocketed once the COVID-19 pandemic began, but because of the lockdown restrictions, it made access much more challenging. Phone calls and virtual visits couldn’t provide the level of care that Agnor said aging residents needed. The National Library of Medicine found that 48 percent of participants felt that virtual gatherings failed to reduce loneliness.
“While they didn’t die of COVID, they died of something else,” Agnor said. “The intent was to save lives. What they also did, though, was guarantee that mental health and despair would be a part of everyone’s lives.”
Agnor said while there was no easy answer, he hopes mental health for aging adults will be a greater discussion at the table if another crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic occurs.
Social isolation is directly associated with morbidity and higher risk of death in aging adults. However, COVID-19 also targets the same demographic, with 93.2 percent of deaths occurring in people age 50 and older, according to Statistica. The virus still poses a threat to the community as many restrictions across the state have been lifted.
Ingroum contracted COVID-19 between his first and second vaccination dose. He has had to use supplemental oxygen ever since as a result.
“I was sucking air in bad,” he said. “I was spitting up both green and purple stuff.”
To support older adults during this time, medical facilities and retirement communities have continued mandating certain precautions to protect people from contracting the virus.
While those precautions might take a mental toll on residents, Ingroum said the staff at Timberline have made an effort to provide opportunities for people to be social and keep busy. He said his room is always clean, and he feels well taken care of. Ingroum said he likes how staff check in on him to “keep the spirits up.” Most of the time, he does OK by himself, he said, as long as the door is kept open so he can chat with neighbors and staff.
Other community programs are also getting involved in helping aging adults feel more connected. Cass Freedland, chair of the Clark County Commission on Aging, said the commission has been holding fireside chats with different local and national experts about what they’re seeing, particularly relating to aging adults in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The commission’s goal for 2022 is titled “Innovation through Connection.” It focuses on connecting people to resources, information and each other on a personal level. Some topics include food and nutrition, transportation and communication needs.
After sending out a survey and receiving 425 responses early this year, Freedland said many aging adults across Clark County said they were feeling isolated and experiencing hardship, especially in the wake of the pandemic.
“We knew that many others in our community, similarly, were feeling disconnected,” Freedland said. “Many aging adults do not really feel comfortable with technology, or don’t have access to a computer. So we decided that we would really dive into how we connect with one another.”
Freedland said the Commission on Aging is working to find solutions for isolation through accommodating preferred communication skills among aging adults and health care professionals, family members and faith communities to bolster a network of support for people.
She hopes that listening to people, recording responses and using this new information will create countywide solutions to this problem.
“This community is rich with resources for aging adults and their families and caregivers,” Freedland said. “At the end of the year, we will make recommendations to the county council, some of which we hope will really be intriguing and something that can actually be implemented at the county level.”
To cope for now, Ingroum said he’s learned how to crochet — he’s since crocheted his cellphone pouch and a sleeve for his water bottle. He enjoys doing crafts, reading about investments and playing sudoku.
For those who are struggling with isolation, Ingroum said there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. He recommends getting outside, eating dinner with trusted COVID-free friends and taking a step back from negative news.
“The staff is doing quite a bit to uplift everybody’s spirits. But it’s hard. It’s hard to keep the spirits up,” he said. “Breathe through it.”