The arrival of COVID-19 has forced our country to face a major crisis.
Although Americans of all ages are experiencing the stress associated with the outbreak, the National Institute on Aging (NIA) estimates that nearly 28 percent, or 14 million older Americans, live alone and are especially vulnerable to stress. NIA studies have shown that isolation and loneliness can increase existing physical and mental conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, anxiety, depression, and cognitive decline. During the pandemic, the effects of those conditions increase for seniors due to even higher levels of isolation and loneliness, as well as the fear of severe illness if they do contract the virus.
Unlike a stressful event that has an identifiable beginning and end, the COVID-19 pandemic is an ongoing and often changing event that has the potential to cause chronic stress in an individual. Chronic stress related to the pandemic can disturb all the major systems in the body. The body reacts to chronic stress differently, with the individual maintaining a constant state of alertness, despite there being no imminent danger.
Caregivers and family members can help support elder loved ones by understanding chronic stress and its effects on seniors, and then help loved ones engage in self-care activities that promote a sense of safety and security.
Things to Watch For
Monitoring for signs of chronic stress is critical in ensuring that you or your loved one gets help when needed. According to the CDC, stress during an outbreak such as COVID-19 can result in:
- Fear and worry about a person’s own health and/or the health of loved ones
- Changes in sleep or eating patterns
- Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
- Chronic fatigue and exhaustion
- Worsening of chronic health problems
- Worsening of mental health conditions
- Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs
What You Can Do
Reassure yourself and/or your loved one that although we cannot control the virus, we can take steps necessary to control our emotional and physical reaction to it. Below are some tips for you and/or your loved one if experiencing the stress of social isolation and fear related to the pandemic.
Take Up A New Hobby or Re-Activate an Old One: This helps to create a sense of purpose. It can be something like growing a garden, cooking, sewing, reading, scrapbooking, completing puzzles, or other activities.
Stay Active: The CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate activity per week for seniors. Getting outdoors and walking or participating in an age-appropriate workout are examples of moderate activities. Due to the sometimes extreme temperatures experienced in Arizona, be sure and plan outdoor activities for the coolest parts of the day. Wear a cloth face mask and practice social distancing while outdoors, and be sure and check with a health care provider before starting any exercise program. Physical activity will help physical and mental well-being.
Take Breaks from the Media: Reading, watching and listening to news about the pandemic can increase anxiety. It is important to stay informed, but limit the amount of time spent watching the news and stick to credible news sources.
Eat Well: Plan meals to ensure the proper number of calories and nutrients. The USDA website is a great source of information for planning healthy meals. Click on this link to explore recommendations.
Stay Connected to Your Community: Religious organizations, libraries, senior groups and families are finding creative ways that people can stay connected. Look into Skype, Zoom, and virtual services online and make some calls to find out about what is going on.
Get Rest: There are loads of recommendations for getting the sleep you need, but you need to put those tips into practice…and that takes practice! Check out the American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s recommendations by clicking on this link.
Maintain a Routine: Routines help improve sleeping, eating and emotional and physical health.
Manage Medications and Self-Monitor: It is important that medications and chronic illnesses like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease are well managed during isolation, especially during the pandemic. Health care providers should be consulted for any challenges with managing medications or illnesses. Many doctors can now conduct telehealth visits, allowing seniors to get care without ever leaving home.
Meditate: Deep breathing, stretching and meditating can help calm the spirit. Mindful Magazine offers an excellent online guide to meditation. Click on this link to explore. Another exceptional provider of meditation and mindfulness is HeadSpace. Check them out by clicking this link.
Managing Your Mental Health
If you and/or your loved one already have mental health or substance abuse issues, you may find it more difficult to cope with those struggles during the pandemic. Don’t be surprised if you experience some depression during this time. It’s important to recognize that this isn’t a sign of weakness, and there is success in treatment. Look for these signs that you may be experiencing depression:
- Sadness or feelings of despair
- Unexplained or aggravated aches and pains
- Loss of interest in socializing or hobbies
- Weight loss or loss of appetite
- Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
- Lack of motivation and energy
- Increased use of alcohol or other drugs
- Fixation on death; thoughts of suicide
- Memory problems
- Slowed movement or speech
- Sleep disturbances (difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, oversleeping, or daytime sleepiness)
- Loss of self-worth
- Worries about being a burden, feelings of worthlessness or self-loathing
- Neglecting personal care (skipping meals, forgetting meds, neglecting personal hygiene)
- Worsening pain, such as arthritis, headaches
Many support groups are holding online meetings to help provide support. Check out these online support groups:
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America ADAA
- Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA)
- Smart Recovery
- Alcoholics Anonymous
If you feel you or someone in your household may harm themselves or someone else:
- Toll-free number 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
- The OnlineChatSuicidePreventionHotline is free and confidential. You’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor in your area.
- Call 1-800-799-7233 and TTY 1-800-787-3224
If you are feeling overwhelmed with emotions like sadness, depression, or anxiety:
- Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746
If you need to find treatment or mental health providers in your area:
If you notice your own or your loved one’s stress reactions are interfering with life for longer than a week, call your health care provider. If you are feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope, or feel like you could harm yourself or others, call 911.
Remember, Nightingale caregivers are always available to support our vulnerable elders with any home care need. We’re proud to be rated as the top provider of senior care in Glendale, AZ and the surrounding areas. Call us to arrange for your customized home care at 602-504-1555.