By César M. Garcés, PhD, and Ellen J. Garcés, MS
In a blink of an eye, the world changed. A new deadly A new deadly virus, Covid-19 has taken over the world and changed our way of life. People have been asked to stay at home. Many are working at home whenever possible. Families and friends are not working anymore. There are no more birthday parties, no family gatherings, or large events. Parents and grandparents cannot see their children and grandchildren. Even daily appointments such as doctor’s visits have been cancelled. For many older senior citizens, this social distancing has left them more isolated than ever before.
Many senior citizens have already been isolated, with some living alone. Some have family members who are busy with their life or may live too far for frequent visits. Their days were structured with food shopping and medical appointments. These appointments kept them somewhat mobile and socialized, but that has all stopped. These people are now more isolated, and they are told to stay in their homes. They no longer have their daily routines to break up their day and to offer some human contact. Studies have shown that visits or contact with other people keep seniors emotionally healthy. This in turn helps their overall health.
Seniors who have had a good relationship with their children and grandchildren, have now lost this contact due to social distancing because of Covid-19. Mental health is an important issue for all people, especially now. But for this vulnerable population, it is doubly important. Isolation may lead to loneliness, depression, and anxiety. This may cause them to discontinue eating, sleeping, taking their medication as prescribed by their doctor, become less mobile, and in some cases suicidal.
While social isolation concerns the lack of structural and functional social support, loneliness relates specifically to one’s negative feelings about that situation. Risk factors for social isolation in older people include a lack of access to private transportation, minimal or no contact with friends and family. The Covid-19 has changed the way most of us are living and working, and the elderly is not an exception. The uncertainty and risk that we are facing has increased our levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.
As the numbers of cases of Covid-19 increase, so does the associated anxiety and depression. For the elderly population, the mental health effects of the virus are as important to address as are the physical health effects. And for the one in five who already have mental health problems, or the one in two who are at risk of developing them, we need to take personal, professional and policy measures to address them.
Now we are faced with a new barrier to mental health for older adults, Covid-19. Older adults face increase loneliness due to the necessary steps being taken to slow the spread of the virus. Lock downs, curfews and social isolation are being imposed in communities across the country, and from the point of view of reducing the rate of infection this is good, but as we know, loneliness is a major barrier to good mental health for everyone. And it presents some unique and severe implications for older adults.
Self-isolation disproportionately affects older adults whose only social contact is outside their homes. Those who do not have close friends or family living in their personal “safe zones” and who rely on outside contact through social programs and community activities can be placed at increased mental health problem. Individuals who already live with anxiety and/or depression may experience a worsening of their mental health, and those who have not experienced it previously are at an increased and substantial risk.
Social isolation and anxiety generating from news reports may take an emotional toll in older adults. Many experience isolations baselines, due to staying at home, and thus face loneliness and anxiety with little reverse. Lack of family visitors may limit the most meaningful part of an older person’s life. Lack of regular interaction may decrease ability for family members to pick up on changes in cognition and function.
Additionally, isolation may restrict needed access to food and medication, and lead to unrecognized falls or health deterioration. While the world is on pause, let us not forget those who are in need. If possible, regular phone calls or video conferencing with family members can be helpful. Additionally, all of us should reach out by phone or video to older adults in our sphere and encourage others to do so.