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When the first reports of a novel coronavirus sweeping Asia and Europe began filtering into the newscycle, it was hard to imagine just how disruptive it would become, or how disproportionately life-threatening it could be to certain groups—particularly seniors.
As we all know now, it wouldn't be long before the COVID-19 upended life completely. As schools and businesses closed and stay-at-home orders were announced, seniors began experiencing an especially onerous side of the pandemic. Not only are they more at risk if exposed to the virus, but by taking the preventative measure of isolating, seniors were effectively being cut off from friends, family, and even some routine medical appointments. Some believed the knock-on effects of isolation could be as dangerous as the virus itself.
The Unexpected Advantages of Being a Senior
Even at the best of times, the senior population is considered a vulnerable one.
According to a 2017 World Health Organization report, 20% of adults aged 60+ suffer from a mental disorder, while another study found that about a quarter of American seniors are considered to be socially isolated. The same report details a strong correlation between loneliness and an increased risk of dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death.
Factor in the added stressors of a pandemic—isolation, high levels of anxiety, fear, even bereavement—and it’s clear why mental health professionals began sounding alarms at the start of lockdowns.
And yet, a number of surveys taken around the world during the pandemic have revealed something unexpected — that overall, senior adults may actually be more resilient to depression, anxiety or stress/trauma than other age groups.
One survey by the US Census Bureau found that while more seniors were indeed reporting mental unease during the pandemic, they did so at significantly lower rates than people younger than 65 (24% vs. 40%). Some experts attribute this to a number of possible psychological traits, including optimism, gratitude, patience and wisdom. In other words, individuals at later life stages may be uniquely equipped to navigate the uncertainties of a global pandemic, because they have collected a lifetime’s worth of coping mechanisms.
More studies will undoubtedly be conducted to better understand these findings.
Navigating a Post-Vaccine World
Now that COVID-19 vaccines have become more readily available, CDC guidelines state that fully vaccinated people can gather indoors without masks or social distancing. Vaccinated seniors are being encouraged to begin rebuilding their mental well-being through socialization. And yet, many are feeling unsure about how to adjust to a post-vaccinated life. Experts advise going slow and establishing a routine.
Dr. Chad Snyder, Clinical Director of telemental health services provider meMD, agrees that the return to in-person interaction may be a long road for some. Just as people adjusted to the pandemic incrementally—first with stay-at-home orders, then with masks, remote work and grocery curbside pickup—we can also similarly make a slow re-entry to social engagement. Dr. Snyder recommends starting small. “Try one-on-one time with a friend or a smaller group, until you feel more comfortable,” he suggests.
“Being healthy requires interactions with friends and family, spending time outdoors, exercising, just changing the scenery,” Dr. Snyder says. “But there's no timeline that says you have to be out doing things, just because someone else is. Be true to your own expectations.”
Recognizing the Signs, Getting Help
Mental illness is one of the leading causes of disability in the US, affecting tens of millions of people each year. And yet, the social stigmas around mental conditions continue to create self-doubt and shame, and make people reluctant to seek treatment.
“The reality is, everyone has some risk of developing a mental health disorder,” Dr. Snyder says. “Mental illness doesn't discriminate. Nearly one in five individuals experience some type of mental health issue in their life and it affects all ages and all populations.”
What might symptoms or warning signs look like? Dr. Snyder shares some common ones to look out for:
Eating or sleeping too much/too little
Isolating or no longer engaging in usual activities
Change in energy levels
Unexplained aches & pains
Feelings of helplessness or hopelessness
Feeling on edge/angry/engaging in more verbal altercations
Thinking of harming self
If you or someone you know are experiencing these or other behaviors that seem out of character, contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) HelpLine at 800-950-6264 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
8 Ways to Boost Your Mental Wellness
Even as restrictions begin to lift, the anxieties, grief and personal setbacks the pandemic brought on may be leaving a lasting impression on our lives. There are very few people who have emerged untouched from the disruptions of 2020, a fact that should offer at least a small amount of solace.
However, there are many enjoyable, positive things we can do each day to elevate our moods and restore a sense of well-being in our lives. Your local Holiday senior living community offers endless opportunities for residents to connect and share these experiences with others. Here are 8 of the best.
1. Take Up a Hobby
With more time on our hands in retirement, this is a great time to participate in the activities we never found enough time for earlier in life. Gardening, woodworking, genealogy, painting, writing a memoir, photography, birdwatching, baking and countless other pursuits offer plenty of opportunity to become absorbed in a task, which leads to feelings of satisfaction and contentment.
2. Move Your Body
Beyond the expected benefits of regular low-impact exercise (stronger muscles reduce the risks of falls, joint pain and fractures), 30 minutes of daily movement can also bolster confidence, improve memory, manage stress and help keep depression at bay. Whether it’s a brisk walk, a game of pickleball, or a yoga session, getting active can offer huge mental and physical health advantages.
3. Play Games
From completing a daily crossword or playing brain games online, to hosting a board game night or joining a trivia party, playing is a mental health necessity! Play promotes brain function, brings connection with others, relieves stress and stimulates the mind - all incredibly effective ways to retain a positive outlook through difficult situations. By being joyfully immersed in the moment, we release feel-good hormones and open new avenues to creative problem-solving.
4. Be a Volunteer
From acts of kindness come hugely rewarding benefits. Helping other people enriches and expands our lives and bolsters our self-worth, which can tamp down negative thinking. By volunteering in the community or contributing time or money toward a cherished cause, we get that warm glow of making a difference in the lives of others. Volunteering can also help bring a sense of control to stressful times—an extra special side effect during a pandemic.
5. Reach Out and Touch Someone
Research shows that connecting with others is the single most important way to stave off feelings of isolation that can lead to emotional and physical decline. And while it’s not always possible to catch up with someone face-to-face (particularly these days), it’s never been easier to stay in touch through social media, FaceTime or Zoom, or even old-school methods like letter writing or phone calls.
6. Celebrate the Positives
Practicing gratitude is a great way to boost positivity and increase our levels of happiness, as well as improve sleep, and build emotional awareness (Seligman, Steen, Park and Peterson, 2005). Gratitude is also correlated to more vitality, energy, and enthusiasm to work harder. Some people keep track of their blessings with a gratitude journal, or collect reminders of their good fortunes in a gratitude jar.
7. Set a Better Sleep Routine
If you keep odd hours you’re not alone. Research shows between 40%-70% of people over 65 have chronic sleep issues and half of cases may be undiagnosed! And while it’s not uncommon for aging adults to experience changes in their sleep patterns, 7-8 hours is the recommended number of hours per night they should be aiming for. Limiting daytime napping, keeping a regular bedtime and wake up schedule, exercising, and enjoying calm, quiet activities before getting into bed all contribute to a good night’s sleep and an even better quality of life.
8. Go Back To School
A recent study shows that the brains of older adults have the ability to excel in a classroom setting. After 6 weeks of rigorous learning, the thinking and memory assessment scores of the participants showed their brains functioned more like those of a person 30 years younger! On top of the cognitive benefits, older students who opt for in-person classes are able to tap into a community of athletics, libraries, concerts, conferences and much more. For those looking to continue their education without schlepping across a campus, many colleges offer online courses that can be completed at home.