In efforts to combat the coronavirus, public health officials continue to stress the importance of sustained physical distancing. This is having an unintended consequence on older adults, especially those with underlying medical conditions. This population is not only the most at-risk for developing severe cases of COVID-19, but they are also at an increased risk of higher rates of loneliness and depression due to social isolation.
According to the National Institute on Aging, social isolation and loneliness, specifically in an older population, have the potential to result in severe consequences including depression, anxiety, diabetes, heart disease, and even death. This may be compounded in those finding themselves financially vulnerable as the economic impact of this pandemic negatively affects both their income and retirement savings. The combination of social isolation and financial concern could potentially transition from average worry to a more serious condition.
Telehealth and Mental Health
Previously we’ve discussed how the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) broadened access to Medicare telehealth services as a response to the coronavirus pandemic. This federal waiver ensures that more people can access more healthcare services without physically entering a healthcare facility.
As of March 6, 2020, Medicare pays for telehealth visits with a range of providers, such as doctors, nurse practitioners, clinical psychologists, and licensed clinical social workers. What does this mean to Medicare beneficiaries suffering from heightened levels of anxiety, loneliness, or depression? That telehealth services now include evaluation, mental health counseling and preventive health screenings in one’s own home, mitigating the risk of an in-person doctor’s visit. A primary care provider can conduct a depression screening over the phone and refer their patient to resources within a virtually supported digital network.
Virtual Support Networks
There are various virtual technologies that providers can leverage to connect their isolated patients to support networks. Papa pairs older adults with ‘Papa Pals’ for companionship and assistance with everyday tasks. Stitch is a social networking site for seniors. There are apps like TalkSpace and BetterHelp that connect people to licensed counselors and therapists. eCounseling.com offers a very detailed guide of available online counseling resources and therapy services. Locally there are Senior Companion programs administered by the Office on Aging. Contact the local office for your county of residence for more information.
If you or a loved one is experiencing signs or symptoms of anxiety or depression, seeking treatment is an important first step. Accessing professional help through telehealth services or an online support forum can reduce the risk of depression and help to ease the feelings of isolation.
Mood Boosting Habits
For those who many not feel they need medical intervention for their emotions, but would like to boost their mood, making changes in certain habits can yield significant improvements to one’s physical and mental health.
Eating a healthy diet and maintaining regular exercise are key components in a healthy lifestyle but finding ways to stay active indoors can be a challenge. More and more gyms and yoga studios are offering web-based classes. YouTube offers a variety of content for all levels of activity, for example balance therapy or seated exercises.
Changing habits and incorporating new ones could also provide positive mental stimulation. During this time of negative news, reducing the amount of screen time on social media platforms or news sources could lessen levels of stress and anxiety. Replace the time you regain from putting down virtual pursuits with physical activities – find a way to connect with friends, neighbors and family at a safe physical distance, incorporate the outdoors, if possible, for fresh air and a healthy dose of Vitamin D (limiting direct exposure). Write letters to friends or loved ones you haven’t spoken with in a while or begin journaling.
Whether you start practicing Tai Chi or take up bird watching, a daily mental “check-in” is a good way to monitor your health for prolonged symptoms of loneliness, anxiety or depression. If you or a loved one is struggling with any of these feelings, here are some resources for more information: