COVID-19: Managing Depression and Anxiety for Older AdultsJanuary 28, 2022
By Andrew Mantelman, Psy.D. and Terri McHugh, LCSW
The pandemic—will it ever be over? Not long ago, when it seemed “life as usual” was in sight, COVID-19 came back with a vengeance. We continue to make changes and concessions. Wearing masks, social distancing, avoiding group gatherings, and frequent hand sanitizing have become our new normal.
Stress of the Pandemic
For many of us this is the “pandemic of despair.” We are isolated and cut off from loved ones, friends, and our typical routines. Restrictions are especially onerous for older adults, as we tend to have smaller, tighter social circles and fewer options for adapting our schedules.
Additionally, we lose friends and loved ones more often compared to our younger counterparts; during the pandemic our grieving seems endless.
Chronic stress and isolation can deplete our ability to manage problems and enjoy life, and this is when depression and anxiety symptoms often begin or intensify. We may avoid calling friends and family. We may feel fearful, like something bad will happen, or we may notice that we often feel angry with or hurt by others. We may notice unpleasant frequent physical symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, stomach distress, sleep problems and changes in appetite; these may be signs of depression and anxiety when no underlying medical cause can be found.
Currently, 50% of older adults report feelings of loneliness and isolation. Approximately 24% of adults 65 and older report feeling depressed and anxious. This is almost twice as many as before the pandemic. In other words, of the 55 million adults 65 and older in the U.S., 16.5 million report struggling with anxiety and depression.
To fight back, let’s look at some positive and healthy changes that we can make and sustain in 2022. To illustrate, consider Sam’s story:
Sam (could be Samantha or Samuel) is 84. Sam has been living alone for almost five years since the death of a beloved spouse. Prior to the pandemic Sam was very friendly and active, taking care to maintain relationships and touching base most days with family and friends. Sam, who is especially fond of the grandchildren, always looked forward to hearing about their latest adventures. Sam liked to go out and became involved in several activities at a senior community center.
Over 5 years, Sam made several friends and numerous acquaintances. Sam had a consistent routine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and especially enjoyed sharing meals with companions. Sam had a mostly consistent bedtime and waking time. Sam participated in a few exercise classes but favored walking. Sam would spent leisure time reading, listening to music, and watching T.V.
Overall, Sam was social and started the day with a list of things to do.
We all know the next part of the story: In March of 2020, COVID-19 changed everything. Soon, like most people, every day seemed the same for Sam. People joked that “every day is Blursday,” but for Sam the joke wore thin.
Sam’s pleasant lifestyle felt completely altered. With so much time alone, Sam began to worry a great deal about different things, e.g., getting sick, the well-being of loved ones, and following the ever-changing mandates. Sam did not look forward to home-based activities and spoke with friends and family less often. Sam began thinking “what’s the use?”
What Sam (and Everyone) Can Do to Feel Better
Let’s consider some things that can make our days better:
1. Come up with an everyday plan (this is very important).
a. Eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. Take medications on time and have a healthy fluid intake.
b. Regulate sleep. We all need a uniform bedtime and waking time. Many people also enjoy a daily nap. Remember that bed is for sleeping. If it’s not sleep time, stay out of bed. If you have persistent changes or problems with sleep, it is important to talk to your medical doctor.
c. Exercise. Be as physically active as you are able. Find a place to walk. Try online exercise classes. Schedule exercise into your day, even if it’s only for a short time.
d. Be social. You can start slowly. Try to talk to friends and family every day. Show interest in what they are doing and tell them about your day. Everyone has their own unique style of being social. Make plans for regular social contacts either in-person, by phone or by video.
e. Try new things. This thing can be something big or small. Try a new food item, book or TV show. Try learning a new computer skill or language, take a video class, work a puzzle, or try a different art mode.
2. Do some service work.
Helping others is mutually beneficial. It is especially important to reach out to anyone who is struggling. Think creatively about how to be of service—or how to be spontaneous! Both are rewarding.
3. Use available supports.
This includes friends, family, and medical professionals such as therapists and medical doctors. Depending on your circumstances, supports can also include personal aides. Your supports will have numerous ideas to help make the days better.
The Bottom Line
It is important that we decide on a plan and try to stick with it. When we say, “Let me see how I feel today,” we are less likely to make the changes we know will be good for us. After deciding on a plan, share it with others for additional reinforcement.
Follow these steps and enjoy better days. If you need additional support, please reach out.
Andrew Mantelman, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Terri McHugh, LCSW
Licensed Clinical Social Worker