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Mental Wellness in Older Adults During COVID-19

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Mental Wellness in Older Adults During COVID-19

Jun 16, 2020

Feelings of anxiety and isolation can be prevalent in individuals over the age of 65. For this older group, shelter-in-place orders during the COVID-19 pandemic can make the feelings of being disconnected and anxious even worse. How can you make sure that your older loved ones are keeping mentally healthy during the time of coronavirus? Dr. Mark Supiano shares some of his strategies to stay connected while physically distancing.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: Sheltering in place because of COVID-19 can increase anxiety and also the feelings of isolation, which are already a threat to older adults.

Gerontologist Dr. Mark Supiano is the Chief, Division of Geriatrics at U of U Health. And if you have a loved one that's 65 or older, that's at high risk, they've been staying at home, how can you keep engaged with them and make sure that they remain mentally healthy? We think about the physical aspects. We don't always think about the mental aspects. Explain what you mean by that.

Dr. Supiano: So, Scot, we're very concerned about the deleterious effects of sheltering in place, particularly for people that were alone already. So this is only heightening their sense of loneliness. We know that loneliness itself is a risk factor for bad outcomes for health. So if you're not able to feel connected with other people because of the physical restraints or physical restrictions that were now imposed on people, those risks could really further escalate.

So in terms of anxiety levels, so what we can do to try to lower these risks or make people feel more connected, making sure that those connections still happen even without physical connections, whether you can do that virtually through a simple telephone call, through a video chat with some platform, but maintaining your connections with family, with friends. Have a daily call. Make sure that you're connecting with someone on a daily basis, that someone is checking in with you.

Interviewer: Being a grandparent is a joy for many, many people that has been kind of taken away, right? You're not able to interact with the grandkids as much, which would also lead to the things we're talking about. Do you have any tips for how that could take place in a safe way?

Dr. Supiano: So I'm in that same boat actually. So my grandchildren are in various parts of the country, and I have not seen them for months. And unfortunately, it will be several months more before we'll have that opportunity.

So maintaining video or, you know, telephone, video chat, we're living on FaceTime and those connections are very important. For people that have the families closer to them, there are still ways that you can interact with your family members while adhering to the recommendations about maintaining physical distance. So it's time and density and protective equipment. Minimizing the time of that interaction, maximizing the distance, so the density, make sure that there are a few people, that you're keeping at least six feet apart, and wearing a mask and making sure that everyone is masked to minimize those risks.

So those types of interactions can still happen, but you need to be careful that the restrictions that we've talked about are still in place and also that your family members, your children or the grandchildren have not been lax about their protective measures. So if they've been out in a group, if they've been out at a party, or with, you know, a group of their friends and there were 100 people there, they're potentially a carrier, and I'm not sure I would want that person, that family member getting close to me.

Interviewer: Which brings up a great point, right? There's a lot of . . . we're learning more and more that asymptomatic carriers, there's a lot more of those out there. So you might not be experiencing any symptoms at all, but you could be spreading it and that would be . . .

Dr. Supiano: Exactly. So if you've had a potential exposure, you should stay away from your older family member.

Interviewer: Yeah. So part of it comes from me realizing what my situation and being honest about that, and part of it is also implementing these protective things. What could I tell somebody in my life who is an older adult? You gave us some ideas of I could, you know, maybe make a phone call, do a video chat. Are there some other pieces of advice that I could give, like a parent or a grandparent, as to how to stay mentally healthy?

Dr. Supiano: So great question, Scot. I think the first point, and this comes from our mental health experts who have been careful to point out, for all of us to hear, that right now it's okay not to be okay and just recognizing that as a fact that everyone's in this together. We'll get through it together. And if you're not okay right now in terms of heightening anxiety and stress, everyone else is experiencing this too, and right now, it's okay not to be okay.

Interviewer: And especially your loved one, if they express that feeling, I think it's normal for us to say, "Oh, it's not going to be that bad," and dismiss it. Probably not do that right now.

Dr. Supiano: I think it is that bad right now. We need to acknowledge that and kind of give people that ability to be open about those feelings. With that, though, there are some tips that have been promoted to try to minimize the anxiety and stress.

One of them is, although we want people to be informed, minimizing the constant stream of bad news and anxiety-inducing news that you may be seeing on your television, through your social media, and other means. Take some stress breaks. Take care and attend to your wellness, which is another factor. And making sure that you're getting exercise. It's hard to do if you're sheltering in place at home, but getting some regular exercise every day, ideally now that the weather's improved to be outside, you're away from other people, getting sunshine, fresh air, but more importantly getting that exercise is a very important stress reducer and can really go a long way in helping with anxiety.

Make sure you're getting enough sleep. So sleep deprivation related to anxiety is going to feed on this even more. So making sure that you're getting restorative sleep. Relax, doing other activities that you enjoy, maybe not watching TV right before bed as an example, and then maintaining those connections with others are the things that would be recommended.

Interviewer: Yeah. You gave me some great ideas there of some questions next time I talk to people in my life. Just to make sure they're sleeping okay and make sure that they're getting their needs met and make sure that they're getting out and getting some exercise. So that's a great list. I love to ask the experts, you know, at the end of the interview. You're the expert, so like what's the one thing you would want somebody to take away after listening to us talk today?

Dr. Supiano: So I'll take two.

Interviewer: All right, you can.

Dr. Supiano: Just I'll do them quickly. So first, if you're over age 65, you're at high risk and be extremely vigilant about these precaution measures. Secondly, social distancing is not physical distancing. So maintain your physical distance but don't be socially isolated. And make sure to maintain those connections.