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COVID-19: Mental health and the elderly

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Written by Jennifer Palisoc

As the colder months approach during the pandemic, mental health experts say it’s important to plan ahead to help support elderly loved ones, in particular if mental illness or addiction are of concern.

With the temperature drop there is the potential for more people to remain indoors and face loneliness and isolation.

“We know that at any given time, approximately 10 per cent of older adults living in the community and up to 40 per cent living in long-term care settings will have significant levels of depression,” says Dr. Damien Gallagher, geriatric psychiatrist. “Even when a patient’s mental health condition is not severe enough to be considered a major or ‘clinical depression,’ it can still impact adversely upon their ability to care for themselves, with greater risk of cognitive decline, cardiovascular events and overall mortality.”

Making plans in advance and taking preventative steps before winter arrives can help provide the elderly with support and care.

Staying connected

Staying in contact and maintaining connections with elderly friends and family members to support them will be key, especially with upcoming celebrations such as Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas.

“Social connections are particularly important around this time of year,” says Dr. Gallagher.

These days, online visits are a helpful way to stay in contact. Family members can help an elderly family member by setting up technology in advance and practising using it together as it may take some getting used to, whether it’s a laptop, smartphone or another device.

“Ultimately family or friends will have to meet their older family members ‘where they are at’ in terms of which mode of communication or technology is most acceptable to them. Many older adults, if motivated and still cognitively able, will be able to bridge that digital divide and use new technologies.”

Dr. Gallagher adds, even in circumstances where there is cognitive impairment, it may still be possible to use virtual technologies with caregiver support.

“Many older adults have adopted video conferencing technologies or found new ways to stay cognitively and socially engaged with virtual day programs, peer support groups or online learning,” says Dr. Gallagher.

There are many simple and creative ways that family and friends can stay in touch during the holidays including sending hand-written letters or cards or a daily phone call to help keep the connection going.

How to plan ahead and support the elderly through the COVID-19 pandemic

It may be helpful to take advantage of the fall weather and take steps before the snow starts to fall to support your loved one.

Families who are caring for an aging parent at home may have to determine how to share caregiving responsibilities with their siblings.

“The challenges will be different for each family,” explains Dr. Gallagher. “The first priority is to identify areas of vulnerability or weak spots, which if not attended to, might become bigger issues as we head into the winter months. Older adults with pre-existing depression, anxiety or history of addiction will likely require more social & medical support from this perspective. Ensuring general physical needs are met with adequate caregiver support will be critical, particularly where there are mobility or cognitive concerns.”

Home safety assessments, if necessary, can help identify areas of concern that may include strategies to reduce falls risks or safe medication management with use of dose boxes or blister packs.

Some older adults may have put off medical appointments or investigations because of concern around the pandemic, but it is important that COVID-19 not deter individuals from seeking the medical help they need. Maintaining medical appointments, even if on-line or on the phone, is also important for mental and physical health. Here are some tips and a checklist for a successful virtual appointment.

Helping your loved one develop and maintain a regular routine with some kind of meaningful activity during the day will help foster a sense of purpose and help keep people cognitively and socially engaged.

Physical fitness is also a key factor in helping to improve mental health.

“It will be important to figure out ways of staying physically active whether this is outdoors or indoors as the weather gets colder. This may include going for a walk, participating in an online exercise program or even getting up and moving around during commercial breaks while watching TV,” says Dr. Gallagher. “Keeping up with physical activity can help to mitigate risk of falls, cognitive decline and depression. This is particularly important for those with some degree of frailty or cognitive impairment to help maintain mobility and independence.”

Family, friends and caregivers can all play a part to help support loved ones through the pandemic with a little planning and preparation.

Learn more about caring for a person with dementia

About the author

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Jennifer Palisoc

Jennifer Palisoc is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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