covid19 family stress banner webThe COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly challenging for older adults, says St. Luke’s clinical therapist Amie Allanson-Dundon, but there are ways you can enhance not only your own mental health, but that of your older loved ones. Even before the pandemic, older adults were already at risk for serious illness, says Allanson-Dundon, Network Director of Clinical Therapy Services. Add the fear of catching COVID with the normally higher rates of social isolation among older adults, and it’s not surprising that seniors are feeling increased stress. Moreover, the older adult population has suffered the greatest number of severe illnesses and deaths, with many seniors losing long-time friends and loved ones.

As a result, they may be coping with feelings of grief and vulnerability. Fortunately, there are ways to lessen anxiety and brighten moods, starting with family support, Allanson-Dundon says. “The family plays an integral role for our older adults dealing with COVID,” she says. “For older adults who have families — children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and siblings — make sure you are keeping in touch and reaching out every couple of days. This is key to the mental health of older adults in general, but especially during the pandemic.” Socialization is important to everyone’s mental health, but, sadly, older adults are more susceptible to social isolation. Many live alone; some don’t drive or have difficulty getting around physically.

In addition, many older adults are staying home out of fear of exposure to COVID. Also, over the past year and a half, they have often been encouraged to limit their exposure to other people and avoid gatherings, she says. Allanson-Dundon encourages family members to get their loved one’s devices and teach them to use them. In response to social distancing, our society has used technology to stay connected, reworking how we communicate. However, a lot of the older population either can’t afford the devices or don’t know how to use them. “Get the easiest tablet you can find and teach them how to Facetime their grandchildren,” she says. “Just the simple stuff like that could be a real game changer.”

For those seniors who do have access to social media, and for those who watch TV news, encourage them to limit the time they spend in these activities and urge them to avoid sources that may not be accurate, such as social media threads with unverified content. Instead, encourage them to listen to trustworthy sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This will help to ease anxiety, she says. When forced to stay at home for long periods, she advises seniors to get outside. Take a lawn chair into the yard or sit on the porch. If you have to stay inside, restart a hobby that you used to enjoy or start at new one. For example, adult coloring books are popular now. Get colored pencils and books with intricate drawings. “Doing art projects in the home may help to keep you mindful and present in an activity, rather than have your mind wander or be overburdened with negativity,” she says.

In times when COVID numbers are low in our community, take the opportunity to reconnect with friends that you might not have seen for a couple of years. And to stay safe, if you’re not vaccinated, talk with your physician about the best way for you to get vaccinated. “Make a time to get together for breakfast or have a few friends over for lunch,” she says. “If you have grandchildren, and they’re involved in activities or sports, ask their parents for their schedules and go to their games and events. If you don’t have grandchildren, find your nearest high school and get their schedules for soccer, field hockey, or football, and go. Just get yourself out of the house.”

Loved ones should encourage socialization. If older adults are capable, help them find a place to volunteer or a senior citizen’s group where they can socialize. Also, make sure they are eating nutritious meals, which is a huge part of mental health, she says. Enlist the help of Meals on Wheels or have healthy groceries delivered. Allanson-Dundon stressed the importance of watching for signs of depression. Family members often attribute such changes to normal aging, or the fact that it’s been a difficult 18 months and not connect them with the need for treatment. Symptoms of depression include:

• persistent sadness or anxiety.
• feelings of hopelessness, guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness.
• irritability or restlessness.
• decreased energy or fatigue.
• moving or talking more slowly.
• difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions.
• difficulty sleeping, or oversleeping.
• changes in appetite.
• thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts.

“If you’re seeing signs in your loved one that are concerning, first talk to that person and be open and honest with them about your concerns,” she advises. “Then, see if they’d be willing to take a trip with you to visit their primary care physician to discuss what they’re feeling or the family’s concerns.”

In addition, Allanson-Dundon says that if someone is expressing suicidal or concerning thoughts, your local emergency room or 9-1-1 are your best and most immediate resources for help. The family doctor can determine whether there are issues that require psychiatric services, psychological services, counseling, or can be treated right there in the physician’s office. Older adults may be reluctant to get psychotherapy or counseling, however, because many were taught not to talk Coping continued from previous page about mental health issues and to "keep family business, family business." “It’s important for older adults to understand counseling can help,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be long-term psychotherapy. It could be just a couple of sessions to learn some coping skills and get things back on track.” Older adults should consult with their physicians to determine how much social interaction is right for them, given their health conditions and personality. More introverted individuals may need less socialization, while extroverts who thrive on social interaction might need more.

“We may be in this for the long haul, but that doesn’t mean we have to curl up into a corner and lose our sense of self,” Allanson-Dudson says. “We can pivot and reinvent ourselves. It may look a little different, but it’s important to push yourself as far as you’re able.”

For more information, or to contact Outpatient Behavioral Health at St Luke’s University Health Network, call 484- 822-5700, or St. Luke’s InfoLink at 866-STLUKES (785-8537), Option 4.

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