Charla Anderson headshot
Charla Anderson

The elevated health risks facing older adults during the coronavirus pandemic are not just physical. With senior living communities restricting visitors, and residents facing prolonged periods of isolation, it is common for them to experience feelings of fear, anxiety and depression. Left untreated, these mental health challenges can exacerbate conditions such as hypertension, chronic pain, malnutrition, medication adherence, substance abuse and insomnia.

As coronavirus spreads, senior living providers can make efforts to reduce psychological stressors associated with the disease by providing access to positive activities and alternative forms of social interaction. These tactics can help prevent fixation on negative news and provide helpful distractions.

But how much anxiety is “normal?” When is it time to seek mental health support? And what can senior living operators do to calm residents’ concerns?

What level of anxiety is “normal?”

Most Americans likely are affected by the changes associated with the COVID-19 outbreak. Disruption to everyday life can be especially difficult for seniors, however. Even in normal times, 43% of seniors report feeling lonely and isolated, according to a landmark study by the University of California at San Francisco. Those numbers likely are under-reported because older adults often are hesitant to discuss their feelings.

In the context of coronavirus, those statistics likely are elevated at your community. Daily caregivers will better recognize distress among residents and should watch for signs of obsessive / compulsive behavior, incessant worry or panic, and signs of loneliness or depression — which often manifest in persistent sadness and lack of motivation or energy, and physical symptoms such as palpitations, excess perspiration, dizziness and difficulty breathing.

Should these symptoms persist, senior living teams should consider seeking the support of a behavioral health provider. Currently, many behavioral health providers have increased telehealth counseling options, and the federal government has expanded Medicare coverage of these services.

Thinking creatively about social connection

Social connection can ease residents’ anxiety or depression, and it’s possible to achieve it even during this time of social distancing. When family and friends can’t visit in person, senior living communities can provide opportunities to engage through traditional means, such as a handwritten note or card, or digital tools such as telephone calls, video chats, email exchanges and access to social media apps when appropriate.

Take a break from coronavirus

We all are familiar with elderly family members who, even in normal times, are heavy consumers of network and cable news. Although staying informed is important, excessive exposure and sensationalized speculation can add unneeded worry. Encourage media breaks by recommending self-care practices such as mindfulness, prayer or meditation; exercising or healthy cooking (if available); and recreational activities such as puzzles, board or card games, listening to music or reading.

Calming fears

For residents with ongoing symptoms of anxiety or depression, one-on-one behavioral health treatment with a licensed provider, including video counseling, can be helpful.

Other helpful strategies include maintaining structure and routine. Aside from processes or procedures that must be changed to avoid the risk of exposure, caregivers should attempt to maintain a sense of routine for residents and be vigilant for signs of behavioral health symptoms.