Older adults are finding themselves in a double bind during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the group most at risk from the virus, they’re advised to stay indoors as much as possible, but they’re also the group most at risk of mental health problems due to social isolation.
Compounding the situation is the fact that their very rational fears of infection can exacerbate existing conditions like anxiety, grief or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Dr. Erin Zarahdnik, a clinical psychiatrist at University of Chicago Medicine, says that in her practice, she is seeing more anxiety as the pandemic crisis enters May.
“People are watching the news, they are just getting bombarded by a lot of information and it’s really causing people to have more anxiety, more fearfulness, trouble sleeping,” she said.
She suggests limiting news consumption to mitigate the anxiety that a flood of information can bring.
“If you have a favorite news program, or a favorite newspaper or favorite website or newspaper, stick with that, and maybe limit yourself to maybe an hour of information a day at the most. And then turn it off and go do something else,” Zarahdnik said. “You’re going to have to figure out a new routine. Reading for pleasure, listening to music, the weather’s warmer so maybe get outside a little. Kind of figuring out how to normalize your life in an abnormal situation.”
Dr. John Holton, gerontologist and director of strategic initiatives at UIC’s Jane Addams Center for Social Policy and Research, agrees that thoughtful news consumption can help prevent some anxiety issues.
“Part of the challenge is how you get and where you get your news from. You want to get factual information … having a trusted source of information is critical,” Holton said. “I think we’re fortunate in our area to have media that understands this need and is taking great lengths to make sure the information is consistent, that it’s checked, that it’s vetted by experts … I think this is the time for community support from faith institutions, from housing facilities, that are able to take efforts to provide residents with information that will be helpful.”
Zarahdnik points out that some of the behaviors brought about by the pandemic, such as wearing face masks, can be confusing and upsetting to some older adults, particularly dementia patients.
“It’s a new thing and it’s pretty disruptive to them so there’s a lot of anxiety around that,” she said.
She advises older adults to pay attention to their own behaviors and seek out help if needed, including people who might be “isolating themselves even more than is advised. So, people who stop answering the phone. If you’re an older adult and your child calls to talk and you don’t feel like answering the phone at all, you kind of feel like getting out of bed, not getting dressed, maybe not eating their regular meals. Your behavior has changed and you’ve stopped taking care of yourself and stopped caring about things – that’s an indication that you should call your doctor.”
For those seeking help, Holton says it can be just a phone call away.
“The Department on Aging maintains a senior helpline, they’re there to provide additional help to people who appear to be shutting down or maintaining an unhealthy social distance,” he said.