Updated: Apr 3, 2020
It doesn’t matter what age you are; your mental health and well-being are being affected by the global health crisis related to COVID-19. But one group in particular that we need to be concerned with is older adults, whose routines and support systems are being thrown into disarray. This is something we are beginning to see on a regular basis at Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.
Early this week, Cindy called in a panic. She is a 72-year-old fiduciary client of Connelly Law Offices, who lives alone and calls her dog, Paddy, her only friend. She had just finished watching the news on a cable channel where they were spouting numbers, including one which prompted her phone call. “They said two million people are going to die, people my age, especially those with a bad heart like me, I’m scared, I’m really scared,” she said tearfully.
Cindy is also a victim of COVID-19. Although she hasn’t been diagnosed with the virus, the anxiety and stress caused by the 24/7 onslaught from cable news outlets, each putting out numbers without context and showing videos of bodies being loaded into freezer trucks is moving her towards a mental health crisis. Even worse, Cindy has recently had a triple bypass and the stress being placed on her surgically repaired heart could lead to another health scare.
A few hours later, Milton, another fiduciary client, called about the reports that said “older adults with diabetes will die” if they contract COVID-19. “I heard this on the news,” he said. “I haven’t left the house in days and I’m almost out of food, I have no milk and I need a refill of medication. The people that usually do this with me were at the senior center and since it’s closed, I’m stuck. I don’t want to go out by myself. I don't want to get sick.”
Attorney Connelly was able to find help for Milton, but there is a larger issue here. “I’m very concerned about our seniors who a living alone at a time like this. The virus is real and definitely something they need to be worried about, but the constant barrage by the talking heads on television news is painting such a dire picture for them that they are getting scared to death,” said Attorney Connelly.
Today, while watching one of the cable news outlets, came this report that punctuated what Attorney Connelly said. “Today is a sobering time for the world," said the cable news channel talking head ominously. "The United States has officially doubled Italy’s number of confirmed cases of COVID-19. At one time, Italy was considered to be the hardest hit country with the highest death rate, but we have taken over that dubious distinction. What does that say about the future of COVID-19 in our country?”
Then the panel began to discuss this “dire” report. Again, numbers without context or perspective - designed to sensationalize. But let's play with those numbers ourselves.
Yes, it is true that the United States has doubled the number of confirmed cases – 239,630 to 115,242. But there are more important numbers here that the media did not discuss - population totals. The total population of Italy is nearly 61 million while in the United States, it is 327 million, five times the number of people. Given that, one would expect the total number of cases to be proportionately higher. In fact, in using these numbers, we find that one in every 529 people in Italy had tested positive for COVID-19 while here, one in every 1365 people - just a bit more context.
And let’s take this one step further, given those numbers, the death rate in Italy based on the confirmed case numbers is .4% while here in the United States, it is .02%. In both cases, the number of dead is too many, but again, context and perspective are important. And, the reality probably is that hundreds of thousands more have had this virus and recovered without being tested, which would drive those death rates down even more if they were counted in the totals.
Is this a comfort? Of course not. We have an extremely dangerous problem on our hands, especially for seniors with underlying health issues. But the ways these numbers are reported, then add to it the political spin and the sheer amount of information being spewed out, the emotional health of our elders is being adversely affected by such irresponsible and sensationalized reporting.
“And they're not just concerned about their own well-being,” stated Attorney Connelly. “They also stress over their children and grandchildren. Many of our clients are separated from their families by hundreds if not thousands of miles. This weighs heavily upon them especially in times like this.”
Indeed, and the stress being placed upon our seniors in this current situation is enormous and consequential. Research shows that morbidity and mortality due to stress-related illnesses are alarming. In fact, emotional stress is a major contributing factor to the six leading causes of death in the United States: cancer, coronary heart disease, accidental injuries, respiratory disorders, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide.
So will this be a case of “if the virus doesn’t get them, the stress caused by their reaction to it will?” In the case of Milton, who we discussed earlier, even though he was out of essential daily living items, he appeared to be more concerned about the lack of contact with his friends at the local Senior Center. A concern he shares with thousands of other elderly citizens.
“One of the major contributing factors affecting the mental health of seniors is social isolation,” said Connelly. “With social distancing being the new normal, this is creating further isolation and affecting their routines from social activities to shopping. This means that the usual support systems they had and the beneficial contact with others are not only diminished but the constant moving of the end date leaves little hope for many, leading to yet another loss in their lives.”
Unfortunately, loss is a frequent occurrence for this age group and one that they generally can navigate with the assistance of support systems. But in cases where loss occurs in combination with other stressors, such as COVID-19, grief can become complicated leading to the rapid deterioration of their mental health.
So how do we know if we, or a loved one or friend, is potentially heading for a mental health crisis? Here are some signs:
Constant feelings of fear, anxiety or emotionally numb
Eating too little or too much, a major change in energy levels (unable to get out of bed at your usual time)
Unable to concentrate or losing interest in things that you usually enjoy
Unable to fall asleep due to intrusive thoughts or images or waking up due to disturbing dreams or nightmares
Physical symptoms such as frequent headaches, rashes or stomach problems
A worsening of chronic health issues, for example, a person with heart disease may have an increase in angina
Emotional instability – crying, angry or trouble dealing with even minor issues
Increase in the use of alcohol, smoking or even abusing drugs
But how do we avoid being affected by what is occurring? Well, here are some tips:
Understand the Facts – Do your own research. Look at numbers and try to understand them through perspective and context. Make sure that any source that you turn to for information is reliable. Facebook and Twitter are not good sources of factual information.
Connect With Others – Make a list of family and friends you can stay connected to. Don’t be afraid to share your fears with those you trust. In times like these where the only thing certain is uncertainty, knowing that others are experiencing similar feelings can be a source of comfort.
Avoid Television News – A steady diet of news reports about COVID-19 would make the most sedate person a nervous wreck. News stations today don’t just report facts but provide opinion and spin not always meant to inform but, in some cases, influence your thinking. This can be confusing and stressful. It’s important to stay informed but balance this with ways to enjoy yourself.
Words Mean Something – They sure do and some words can have a profound impact on our emotions and responses. The media’s constant use of “epidemic” or “pandemic” are words that are designed to sensationalize the story and for us, lends a feeling of being out of control. Although it’s true we have little control over the virus, we do have control over our reactions and responses. Focus on what we can do and not on what we can’t.
Finally, AARP has put together a list of things that we can do to support older adults during this stressful time:
Regularly check in on your older adult friends, neighbors and family members;
Call or video-chat with them, since texting and social media may not be the best method of connecting;
Ask how they are doing during this period of time, how their routines might have had to change, and what kinds of things they are doing to cope with the stress;
Encourage them to keep doing the activities that are allowable during COVID for their local area, and that they identify as being most helpful for them, such as daily exercise or a walk, stretching, listening to or playing music, reading, enjoying favorite or humorous shows, puzzles, games, social activities, and meditation or prayer;
Help them seek medical advice or care if they are experiencing symptoms of physical or mental health decline;
Offer to bring them a meal, run an errand, or walk their dog, if your town allows for these activities;
Seek advice from them based on their experience and wisdom;
Express gratitude and appreciation for any support you get from your relationship with them. Let them know what you admire about the way they conduct their life.
“Social distancing is not emotional distancing,” said Attorney Connelly. “We all need to help support the older members of our community during this stressful time by reaching out through the phone and utilizing other forms of social media. More importantly, do not let this current situation dominate these conversations. Learn to laugh, share memories and focus on other things happening in our lives.”
We have added a link below to our COVID-19 update page on our website. This page contains links to all pertinent state agencies, like the Department of Health in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts as well as links to the Centers for Disease Control. It also contains a news feed regarding the latest on COVID-19 for Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts that is continually updated throughout the day. Please click below for the latest information on COVID-19.