We can get so focused on our loved one’s physical health that we forget to pay attention to their mental health. In addition to being a physically high-risk population for COVID-19, elderly Americans are feeling increased anxiety and stress, according to Brian Carpenter, professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Washington University. Learn why your loved ones may be experiencing these negative emotions due to senior loneliness, and get tips for coping with coronavirus stress.
Causes of increased anxiety in elderly populations
- Isolation from family and friends
Seniors who live alone, or in a community that isn’t allowing visitors during the pandemic, are especially affected by isolation. Even those who live with family may not be able to visit with grandchildren or relatives deemed essential workers.
- Higher risk
Older adults are more concerned with protecting themselves from the coronavirus due to age and underlying conditions.
- Concern about medical care
Many medical providers, like optometrists, non-emergency dentists, and dermatologists, are closing to prevent contagion.
- Reports of mortality
Seniors are exposed to coverage of elderly deaths across the country and statistics about their increased risk.
Elderly people may experience guilt from having to rely on family or friends for groceries and everyday tasks. Some may also feel powerless because of their inability to help out during the crisis.
How to help seniors cope with stress and social isolation
These actions can ease your loved one’s anxiety and reduce your own stress about their emotional well-being during the pandemic:
- Listen actively
Sometimes the best thing you can do is listen to your loved one’s concerns. Anxiety in older adults could stem from one of the reasons listed above, or from something more personal. The World Health Organization emphasizes the importance of letting your loved one speak freely. They may be scared and confused, so remember to be open to their concerns and let them know you’re there to listen.
- Maintain a routine
Choosing to finish breakfast before turning on the news decreases early-morning anxiety, while a scheduled dinnertime can reduce sundown syndrome in those with dementia. If you’re working from home and social distancing with children during the pandemic, see if your loved one can spend time with their grandkids to keep them both busy. This is also a great way to foster intergenerational relationships.
- Accept their fears and feelings
Instead of just assuring your loved one that everything will be okay, actively listen and encourage them to express their fears. Your reassurance that their feelings are normal will ease anxiety. According to the CDC, it’s important to “let older adults and people with disabilities know it is common to feel distressed during a crisis. Remind them that asking for and accepting help is a sign of strength.”
- Practice mindfulness
The World Health Organization suggests you “draw on skills you have used in the past that have helped you to manage previous life’s adversities and use those skills to help you manage your emotions during the challenging time of this outbreak.” These methods could include meditation, therapy, or journaling.
For some elderly people, mindfulness can come in the form of listening to music from their childhood, or even taking a quiet bath.
- Stay healthy and active
It’s no secret that exercise has a positive effect on seniors’ mental and physical well-being. Older people who regularly attend fitness classes at senior centers or go on walks could benefit from online chair yoga or senior aerobics videos at home.
- Share facts from reliable sources
Elderly Americans are the most likely to be susceptible to internet scams and false news reports about the coronavirus, partially due to less technology experience. Websites with unsubstantiated information can cause anxiety in senior citizens through fear mongering and conspiracy theories. Suggest that your loved one stick to well-known, verified news sources for updates on COVID-19.
- Stay busy with activities that remind them of happier times
If your loved one is used to scheduled activities or visiting with friends, increased isolation can manifest as anxiety and depression. If they live at home with you, suggest spending time together reliving happy memories rather than dwelling on negative changes in the present. If your loved one has dementia, check out this list of other activities to create connections.
- Cook up favorite memories
Ask your relative what their favorite foods were growing up. What did they cook for you when you were a child? See if they remember recipes or have old cookbooks. With many restaurants closed, it’s a great time to try pantry staples from the past, like copper penny salad, homemade bread, or their famous tuna casserole.
- Watch something black and white
If you have kids or teens, there’s a good chance they’ve only seen movies in color. Rent some of your loved one’s favorites, and talk about how movies and TV have changed. Older films are often available for free through the Turner Classic Movies channel or your local library’s online database.
- Listen to the classics
Was your loved one a fan of jazz? How about Frank Sinatra or Elvis? There are incredible resources online to listen to music from the past. Ask if they ever went to see their favorites in concert, or about their best memories of radio shows.
- Learn about family history
With kids out of school, it’s fun to engage in educational, informative activities for the whole family. Set up an “interview,” or just a time to chat, and use this list of 20 questions to learn more about your aging loved one.
What if anxiety in seniors persists?
If you noticed increased anxiety before the start of the pandemic, or if symptoms persist after life begins to normalize, it may be time to seek help from a doctor or geriatric psychologist. Generalized anxiety disorder has become prevalent in seniors — in fact, about 20% of older adults have diagnosable mental health disorders.
The National Institute on Mental Health describes generalized anxiety disorder (G.A.D.) as excessive, persistent worrying that makes it difficult to live your normal life. It can manifest physically as headaches, stomachaches, sore muscles, or inability to sleep. Anxiety can also cause irritability, restlessness, and changes in appetite.
If your loved one has experienced these symptoms persistently for more than six months, their anxiety could be a diagnosable and treatable condition. Talk with their doctor via telemedicine about your loved one’s symptoms, treatment options, and the availability of elderly mental health specialists in your area.
World Health Organization: Mental Health of Older Adults
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Healthy Brain Initiative (https://www.cdc.gov/aging/mentalhealth/depression.htm)
National Institute of Mental Health – Mental Illness (https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml#part_154910