Courtesy of NWI Times • Written by Mark Loehrke, Times correspondence
While much of the focus when it came to senior citizens and dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic tended toward protecting them from the potential physical effects of the virus, another serious issue may have been escaping notice — the mental impact of forced long-term isolation.
After all, many seniors may have been dealing with harmful isolation situations even before the pandemic arrived – whether due to living far from family or having lost friends and relatives over the years. Then COVID has served to restrict the social outlets they did have. And while prioritizing physical health was a reasonable choice, the social and emotional fallout associated with isolation cannot be minimized.
“The impact of isolation on the elderly can greatly impact their mental health in many ways,” says Jennifer Poole, director of behavioral health services at Methodist Hospitals. “They are at greater risk of having depression or exacerbating mental health conditions that are already present. The lack of social interaction can also lead to decreased cognitive function due to less stimulation from others and activities.”
Like people of all ages and backgrounds, however, many seniors grappling with the mental health effects of isolation may be reluctant to voice their concerns or ask for help, which is why it’s more important than ever for friends and family members to check in frequently and to keep an eye out for signs that isolation may be taking a toll. These include:
- The loss of interest in hobbies or usual daily activities
- A lack of energy or motivation
- Loss of memory
- Neglect of personal hygiene
- Diminished appetite
- Unusual sleep patterns (too much or too little)
- Increased negative behaviors such as aggression, irritability or anger.
“The pandemic is so unpredictable and especially frightening for seniors because they are the most affected,” says Chandra Lyles, manager of psychiatric social services and behavioral health service at Community Healthcare System. “Most elderly people enjoy spending time with others because when they are alone, they began to ruminate and get fixated on negative thoughts.”
“We have definitely seen an increase in worry and depression with the restrictions this past year,” adds Nancy Brazil, manager of home health services at Methodist Hospitals. “Not being able to see family members is tough, and many older people can be tech challenged so even virtual visits can be difficult. This lack of socialization can lead to more health issues. They may stop taking their medications or begin eating poorly.”
Poole, Lyles and Brazil say there are steps that friends or family members can take if they notice depression or unusual behaviors setting in for a senior who lives alone. They include:
- Encouraging them to participate in new or longstanding activities or hobbies
- Suggesting activities to increase mental stimulation such as reading and crossword puzzles
- Trying to get them to increase their physical activity
- Helping them stay in touch, which sometimes mean assisting them with technology such as the internet or Zoom.
“The best way to combat isolation is to remain in close contact with family and friends by telephone or video chat,” Brazil says. “Keeping up to date with friends and family on a daily basis allows them to stay connected. When normal contact stops, worry and anxiety can set in.”
While a year or more of isolation has done some damage, vaccines to combat the virus with seniors at the front of the line provides light at the end of this long tunnel. Once vaccinated, Poole says it’s important for seniors to ease back into their pre-pandemic routines and lifestyles — even if it they need a little refresher and a little help from their friends and family after such an extended break.
“It can be very overwhelming switching from complete isolation to being back out into the community and being social,” she explains. “Start slowly by bringing them along for a few errands, setting up a short visit with a friend, going for walks or taking them to lunch. The key is to start small and limit the time of the activity to decrease the chance of overstimulating them.”
“Church is very important for many elderly individuals,” adds Brazil. “Being able to go to church and get that spiritual connection again will be very helpful. Even just going for a car ride on a sunny day will be a great start. And once all family members have been vaccinated, just think about how wonderful a hug will be after going without it for a year!”