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Why mental health of the elderly should be a priority during COVID-19

Why mental health of the elderly should be a priority during COVID-19

Samvedna Care’s Co-Founder, Dr. Jayashree Dasgupta, Clinical Psychologist, MPhil, PhD (NIMHANS) shares her views on why elderly mental health should be a priority right now.

Over the last few weeks, the COVID pandemic has impacted lives across the globe in unimaginable ways, and more than ever at this time like this, it is essential we pay attention to our elderly who are the most vulnerable segment of the population. With aging, immunity decreases making elderly more susceptible to the virus. In addition, most people above the age of 60 have some or the other medical condition like diabetes, hypertension or asthma; all of which are risk factors.

In fact, the time of the 2011 census there were around 104 million people above the age of 60, which means that a staggering 9 percent of our population fall within this high risk group. But besides being most at risk, social distancing and the nationwide lockdown also have implications on mental health of the elderly, which simply should not be ignored.

Here are some of the reasons why elderly are more likely to face mental health problems during lockdown and some steps that can be taken to reduce this likelihood:

  1. Increased social isolation

Feelings of loneliness are common amongst the elderly, and even before the lockdown, many elderly faced social isolation due to reduced mobility, health issues and loss of their peer group. For a lot of elderly living alone, and those who were housebound or bedridden; visits from family and friends, or even their care attendants and house help, was their only source of social interaction. For many others, visiting places of worship, or trips to the local grocery store were the high point of their daily routine. Now, with the lockdown, these social lifelines have been cut exacerbating feelings of loneliness and isolation.

By remaining in touch with the elderly, through phone calls or video chats, these feelings of social isolation can be reduced and elderly can feel more connected. You can also avail home care services for the elderly to help them cope better during these times.

  1. Struggles to manage daily routine

Elderly, particularly those living on their own, may be dependent on external support for basic necessities, such as groceries or medicines that can be a struggle at this time. Elderly may not be tech savvy enough to use apps for home deliveries, and concerns about contracting the virus whilst going out may make them even more anxious to do so. Worries about their regular medication finishing, or how they will manage if a medical emergency occurs at a time like this, may worsen their anxiety causing them to panic.

During these times, local community level efforts to buy groceries, provide food or medicines for elderly residents can be very helpful. Also, preparing a contingency plan and keeping emergency contact numbers handy can reassure elderly and help them feel more in control in the event of an emergency. If they are still at high risk, you could consider enrolling them in an elderly care centre with professionals who are trained to tend to high risk elders.

  1. Impact of anxiety on the immune system

Although it is normal for everyone to feel some amount of stress during these times, additional stress can be particularly problematic in elderly as increased anxiety further weakens the immune system, becoming an additional risk factor. Symptoms of anxiety include feelings of constantly being tensed, restless or overwhelmed; and also include physical symptoms such as palpitations and breathing difficulties. Anxious people also tend to misinterpret their physical symptoms to be signs of some serious illness. With the overload of information on symptoms of COVID-19, it is quite possible that anxious elderly may misinterpret breathing difficulties or throat discomfort as a sign of COVID which in turn, may further increase their anxiety levels.

Staying safe and relaxed by trying not to worry is very important. Simple techniques such as meditation and yoga, or engaging in enjoyable activities can help elderly feel less stressed. Signing up for elder home care services can also help them stay relaxed and stress-free as most things are taken care of.

  1. Fears about the end

For many elderly, news is their window to the outer world. But constant updates on social media and 24-hour news channels can definitely make one feel as if they are in the eye of a storm.  At the moment, reports are mostly about COVID-19 related losses and death which are all very disturbing. Under the current circumstances, the constant reaffirmation that elderly like themselves are most at risk can be very depressing and compound feelings of helplessness, making them more prone to depression.

Encouraging elderly to reduce time spent watching news and instead encouraging them to watch other programs or listen to music can help elevate their mood.

  1. Pre-existing undiagnosed mental health conditions

Mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or dementia are often misunderstood, and confused to be a normal part of aging. Individuals who may have an undiagnosed mental health condition can worsen at this time, therefore it is essential that signs of low mood, worrying or any cognitive difficulties are not ignored.

Under the current circumstances, taking an elderly person to a clinic or hospital to meet with a doctor or health professional can put them at increased risk for COVID-19. Instead, consulting a counsellor or doctor online is a much safer option to get immediate help and support.

These are definitely trying times when elderly are at risk, not only for COVID-19, but also mental health problems, and taking steps to care for their physical and mental wellbeing become paramount. Although we may not be able to reach out physically, we can still remain connected in other ways. Enquiring about the wellbeing of elderly, providing emotional support and physical help wherever possible become essential for their psychological well-being. If you are looking for elder care in Delhi or need some emotional support yourself, WhatsApp Samvedna on 9810887895 and one of our counsellors will get back to you.

Dr. Jayashree Dasgupta, Clinical Psychologist, MPhil, PhD (NIMHANS), is Co-Founder and Project Director, Samvedna Care. Samvedna provides eldercare services for the physical, emotional and mental health wellbeing of elderly.

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