GUEST COLUMN: COVID-19 Affects Seniors' Mental Health

COVID-19 and Seniors' Mental Health

By Mary Fox

I could see it on my mom’s face when I visited her at the assisted living facility. She was hurt, confused, and frustrated. I was right there on the other side of the glass, but she couldn't hug me, couldn’t hear me, and couldn’t sit with me as usual. 

It's the same everywhere. Thanks to COVID-19, thousands of senior adults have been separated from family and friends during a frightening and dangerous time. Senior centers and churches unwillingly closed their doors. Families were told to “shelter in place,” often meaning far away from elderly relatives. People turned to technology to improvise. But not all seniors have access or the ability to make technology work for them. 

My mom’s facility closed its doors early. Surrounded by friends and a caring staff, she has fared well. As the weeks in quarantine wore on, she expressed frustration, irritation, sadness, and resignation. There were also moments of gratitute; she was grateful to be out of the danger zone. She, like so many others, has been experiencing grief over the losses of yet another layer of independence, physical closeness with loved ones, worry over finances of family members, our sense of predictability, the belief that we can protect ourselves, and so much more. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the elderly in America were already experiencing an epidemic of social isolation and loneliness.

At Unity Psychiatric Care, an inpatient psychiatric hospital for seniors, we had calls from facilities that were having difficulty maintaining isolation protocols with residents whose wandering would otherwise have been managed. We heard about patients who were obsessed with the virus, anxious and tearful. We had calls from family members reporting their loved ones with dementia were more difficult to manage due to changes in their daily routines. 

Seniors, especially those with cognitive impairment, experienced confusion over the restrictions imposed.  Social distancing, masks and gloves, frequent temperature checks, and visitation restrictions all created an atmosphere of controlled panic. Many found themselves glued to news reports, which focused on the rapid spread of the coronavirus and death counts.

Experts tell us that long after things return to a new normal, mental health effects will continue. The elderly are resilient people. They have been through hard times before. Those already experiencing mental health issues will be hit the hardest. As the COVID-19 restrictions ease, keep your eye on elderly loved ones. If you notice signs of depression and anxiety, don’t wait to get help. The right treatment from a mental health professional can make all the difference.

Mary Fox is the Community Relations Manager at Unity Psychiatric Care Columbia, a 16-bed specialty hospital serving adults age 55 and older. Mary assists senior service providers in identifying those individuals experiencing acute psychiatric issues and provides education to caregivers on dementia, depression and other mental health issues affecting seniors. For more information, call (931) 388-6573 or visit unitypsych.com.

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