The past two years have indeed been historic when it comes to public health. First, the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw the destruction of economies, the closure of schools, and unprecedented deaths around the globe among older adults. Unfortunately, the effects of the coronavirus haven't stopped there. The subsequent lockdowns and resulting social isolation may have a profound effect upon the very group who were most victimized by the pandemic -- our seniors -- and we may be dealing with these after-effects for some time to come.
Social isolation and loneliness are known risk factors that have been linked to poor physical and mental health outcomes. Add to this confusion over the mixed messages being put forth by our government and the conspiracy theories being spread on social media and we have plenty of reasons to be concerned about how our seniors will cope. But that is a blog for another time, today, we are going to discuss the light that is beginning to shine at the end of the tunnel.
"The past two years have been absolutely awful," said certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "Prior to the pandemic, we knew that seniors were facing social isolation and loneliness issues more than ever before due to the rapid advances in technology and communications leaving many of them feeling as if they had been left behind and the globalization of the economy, where their children and other family members have had to move to follow their chosen career, often leaving them lacking family support. Then came COVID and the lockdowns. which added yet another layer of isolation. But if this past Friday was any indication of how seniors have adjusted, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic."
What Happened Friday?
For the first time since early 2020, Attorney Connelly appeared before a group of seniors at the Leon Mathieu Senior Center in Pawtucket, Rhode Island to discuss all things elder law. Program Director Mary Lou Moran asked Attorney Connelly in December of 2021 if he was interested in providing this workshop for the seniors and he answered an emphatic "Yes!"
"It's been over two years since we have been able to do a group presentation for older adults, something I really missed," said Attorney Connelly. "When you're in a group of seniors, they are able to share their individual experiences and realize they are not alone, that others have the same concerns and fears, prompting questions that they may not otherwise ask if it were a one-on-one experience."
Those who attended had many questions about elder law, ranging from wills to trusts and Medicaid. There were several questions that came up that were indirectly related to the pandemic, including probate, real estate questions, and more.
"When you're in a group of seniors, they are able to share their individual experiences and realize they are not alone, that others have the same concerns and fears, prompting questions that they may not otherwise ask if it were a one-on-one experience." --- Attorney RJ Connelly III
After the presentation, several seniors grouped up just to engage in small talk and share stories. Outside the facility, a senior who had stopped by just for the elder law discussion expressed her feelings about getting together again at the senior center.
"I was always active before COVID, it kept me feeling young. But when they started shutting down everything, it really impacted my mood," she said. "Yeah, I spoke to friends on the phone, but it wasn't the same. For a long time, I felt just horrible, not even wanting to get out of bed sometimes, but when I was told the center was going to re-open again, I was beyond excited. I called my daughter and son and told them; they could hear the happiness in my voice. Let me tell you, it's really, really, good to be back!"
"One of the things I thought most about during the pandemic was what happens when we get to the endemic phase of COVID," said Attorney Connelly. "My concern for our older adults was how they would adjust when we return to a so-called 'normal lifestyle'? Would there be fear and anxiety keeping them home and away from others, exacerbating the issues of loneliness and isolation, increasing the strain on an already overburdened mental health system?" This is a question that has been asked by many other senior care professionals as well.
Supporting Our Seniors
As we pointed out, there exists a multitude of concerns among care providers that feelings of anxiety and vulnerability may be the norm rather than the exception as seniors return to post-pandemic activities. Many organizations and mental health providers have guided senior centers and others who provide services to older adults in ways to prepare for those who express such emotions. The Senior Lifestyle website has published a list of ten tips that can help older adults and those who work with them adjust to returning to a more active lifestyle and social interactions. We have included the list below.
1. Be Aware of Their Anxiety
Signs of COVID anxiety can vary by person. Anxiety in older adults may cause low-level discomfort, with an elevated heart rate or rapid breathing. In other cases, they could experience panic attacks or express a fear of losing control. Watch for symptoms of anxiety in the elderly and be prepared to comfort them.
2. Listen to Their Fears and Feelings
If they are experiencing the issues listed above, don’t just dismiss them. Actively listen to them and encourage them to share their fears and concerns. Letting them know that what they’re experiencing is normal will help reassure them, which eases anxiety in senior citizens.
3. Think About What They Can Control
On the other side of the uncertainty that feeds anxiety is control. There are actually a number of elements we can control. Help them find better things to occupy their time, such as their surroundings, maybe taking up a new hobby like painting. Having things in their control can ease anxiety.
4. Don’t Rush Them Back
Your loved one may have home quarantine anxiety, so have them socialize at their own comfort level. Start by connecting with their inner circle of friends or family. Go only to a limited number of familiar places, maybe concentrating on wide-open spaces like parks or the beach. If they’re not ready for face-to-face, have them talk with a different person each day over the phone or online.
5. Remind Them to Stay Safe
Ease their re-entry anxiety by reminding them that they’re safer if they wear masks, wash their hands and maintain social distancing. This holds true even if they’ve been vaccinated. This can empower them to know they’re doing what they can to keep themselves and their loved ones safe. That can help manage symptoms of anxiety in older adults more effectively.
6. Maintain Their Routine
Ease early-morning anxiety by having them finish breakfast before turning on the news. A scheduled dinnertime can reduce the effects of sundowners syndrome in those with dementia. Set a fixed time for in-person, phone, or online visits. The resumption of a routine can help them feel more connected and less anxious.
7. Have Them Practice Mindfulness
Encourage them to practice methods for clearing their mind and dealing with the anxiety. For some, this could include meditation, therapy, prayer, or journaling. For other seniors, music, an audiobook or even a quiet bath can help them rest their minds.
8. Encourage Them to Stay Active and Healthy
Exercise has a proven positive effect on mental and physical well-being, and the same is true of seniors. Aging people who attend fitness classes regularly at senior centers or go on walks might benefit from senior aerobics videos or online chair yoga at home.
9. Monitor Their Information Intake
The elderly are more susceptible to scams and false news about COVID. Some communication may promise protection from an uncertain financial future. False news reports with unsubstantiated information can also cause stress and anxiety in older adults. Suggest that the senior in your care stick to well-known news sources for updates on COVID and make sure they’re not being led astray.
10. Remind Them of Happier Times
If your loved one must remain isolated for now, suggest activities that can raise their spirits and connect them to happier times. Spend time with them, recall old stories, go through photo albums or scrapbooks. Watch old videos of family activities. This helps get their focus off the present uncertainty.
"Those of us who work with older adults should certainly be prepared to support them as needed," said Attorney Connelly. "But last Friday, I saw a whole lot of happy faces and individuals who were eager to be together again, and that experience gave me plenty of hope about the resiliency of our seniors."
If you are interested in a presentation at your facility, for clients, or for staff, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here for a list of our comprehensive presentations.