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Easing Your Way Back to Normal

March 31, 2021

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

by Alan Blitz

As vaccination numbers continue to grow and pandemic restrictions are slowly lifted, what happens next? What precautions should I still take even if I am vaccinated?  How do I find my way back to a normal routine?  

Members of North Shore Senior Center’s Senior Options counseling team, Terri McHugh, LCSW, clinical supervisor, and Carrie Cutler, LCSW, therapist, share their responses to many questions people may have about easing back to normal.  

Q. What are some of the greatest concerns about seniors easing their way back to normal?

A. All of us have been affected by the extended time we have been exposed to serious health risk, grief and social distance from others.  In a December 2020 U. S. Census Bureau survey, 42% of Americans reported symptoms of depression and anxiety, whereas 11% reported these symptoms in 2019. Older adults were advised to be especially cautious about health risks. 

They may have spent more time worried and isolated, as older adults tend to have smaller, tighter social circles than their younger counterparts. It may take deliberate effort to feel less vulnerable and to seek opportunities for meaningful social engagement.

Q. I have been careful to avoid social situations and be compliant with sheltering-in-place guidelines. How will I know when I am ready to ease my way back to normal?  

A. If you are feeling bored and restless, avoid tasks, have a hard time recalling words and become easily irritated, these are all indications that you need more social interaction.  Worry, loneliness and isolation can cause chemical changes that affect stress levels and our ability to bond with others. 

If you are apprehensive about making plans and scheduling activities, take it slow and ease in gradually. Even if you are eager to jump back in, keep in mind that you have been through changes and “normal” might not feel the same. It is important to maintain the expectation that things will get better and remind yourself that it will take time. 

Q. What are the first steps I should take to determine how to start easing out of the pandemic?  

A. First, evaluate both the risks and benefits of moving forward and getting out of “hibernation.”  What do you look forward to? What are your greatest concerns? How do you see yourself in social settings? 

Assessing your personal boundaries will help you set reasonable goals for resuming life in social groups. Next, use problem-solving strategies to address concerns. If you feel nervous about health risks, talk to your doctor and other trusted sources. Plan a health management strategy that is specific to your situation. 

If you are self-conscious about having been reclusive for so long, start by connecting to a few close family or friends. If you are not quite ready for meeting face-to-face, set a goal to talk to someone different every day by phone or computer. 

Q. I have heard it is important to keep a schedule of “self-care.”  What does that mean?

A. Self-care requires a whole-person approach. We want to maximize good health by having a regular schedule for exercise, good-quality sleep, and hygiene/grooming. We also want to be attuned to our mental well-being.  

Talking to others about how we are feeling may relieve anxiety. Artistic expression, journaling and psychotherapy are good outlets as well. Mindfulness, or focusing on the “here and now,” helps us to feel calmer and less distracted because we aren’t worrying about the future or dwelling on bad experiences from the past.  

Q. If I am fully vaccinated, and others I will be with are vaccinated, can we socialize in person?

A. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued their first set of guidelines on March 8 on how fully vaccinated people can safety visit with others.

Q. I am concerned the “social hibernation” may have affected my interest in socializing with others.  How do I know if I have experienced some level of depression or anxiety? What are some of the warning signs?  

A. Depression and anxiety can cause us to avoid social situations that we previously enjoyed. You may feel fearful, like something bad will happen, or you may notice that you feel more hurt or angry with others. You may be held back by frequent physical symptoms such as headaches, fatigue or gastric problems; these may be signs of depression and/or anxiety when no underlying medical cause can be found. 

Q. How do I work toward a more positive attitude and stop thinking about worst-case scenarios?

A. Many people will realize that they’ve forgotten how to be social and they may feel self-conscious. After a long time away from groups of people, social skills may be rusty. Taking active steps to join in can improve your attitude and help you regain a sense of normalcy. 

  • For some people it can be helpful to visualize themselves participating in social situations. This can be a motivating exercise and it is also a way to prepare yourself for anxiety-provoking situations. It may seem counter-intuitive to picture yourself in an uncomfortable scenario, but exposing ourselves to anxiety, starting with small doses, can be an effective way to overcome our fears. 
  • We can also “talk back” to self-defeating thoughts like “It won’t be the same” or “people will notice that I’m not as sharp.” We can say to ourselves, “it will get better” and “many people have slowed down.” Eventually we will believe it! 
  • As we get ready to rejoin the world, it’s a good idea to get ourselves in the best possible frame of mind. Humor is a tool that has always helped in hard times. Laughing has gotten us through other major catastrophes. 
  • We also know that reminiscing with family, friends and cohorts is a great way to connect with others. There are many social media special-interest groups that have been set up for this purpose. 
  • Finding a rerun or an old game show from a favorite era is another great way to take a break from the stress of watching TV news.
  • Finally, we can focus on gratitude. Being aware of “the little things” we enjoy in life gives us a sense of satisfaction and control. A popular gratitude practice is to list three good things every day for 30 days, without repeating. Another exercise involves writing a letter of gratitude to someone who has enriched your life—and follow up with a visit. You can also write a gratitude letter to someone who has passed away. 

Q. If I do wish to talk to someone, how should I go about it? Is there insurance coverage?   

A. Many people find that therapy is helpful when anxiety and depression deplete their ability to manage life’s problems. Psychotherapy with a licensed professional is usually covered by Medicare Part B and most other insurance. Check with your insurance provider for coverage details.

For more information about therapy and counseling services with NSSC’s Senior Options, please contact Terri McHugh at 847.424.5672 or tmchugh@nssc.org.

Q. What additional resources do you recommend?

A. For further insights and perspectives, you may consider reading the articles at the links below: 

5 Simple Tips to Help to Help Manage Anxiety after Leaving Lockdown

Why We May have to Relearn to Socialize

9 Things that Weren't Scary before the Pandemic But Now Are

15 Lessons the Coronavirus Pandemic Has Taught Us

The Most Likely Timeline for Life to Return to Normal

Next month’s Engage feature:  "Easing Their Way Back from the Pandemic: Perspectives of NSSC Members"