Caring for Older Adults’ Mental Health During COVID-19

Molly Hunt, LSW

During an infectious disease outbreak there is often a great deal of misinformation, fear, anxiety, and overexposure to social media and news outlets. First and foremost, we must recognize that older adults are currently at a higher risk and being educated is the best way to support them. Understanding that older adults are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, we need to acknowledge and address that they are aware of this and trying to cope with the uncertainty, regardless of whether or not they have been or will be exposed at all. Service providers and loved ones should acknowledge the uncertainty that comes with this outbreak and help support and educate older adults.

How can we begin to educate the older adults in our lives? For starters, correct any misinformation that you may be presented with by an older adult. Direct older adults to official public health resources and stay informed yourself. Social media allows inaccurate information to spread quickly and easily, and we are all the first line of defense against misinformation. Advise individuals to limit their media exposure. Excess media exposure can cause negative thoughts, anxiety, and other stresses. Direct people to reliable public health resources for their information.

Second, it is essential to anticipate and inform older adults about stress reactions. When people read, hear, or watch news and social media about an outbreak such as COVID-19, they may feel anxious or show signs of stress. This is normal. Emotional distress is common in the context of uncertainty and life-threatening situations. Acknowledge that this exists and normalize it. It’s important to reduce any shame that is associated with these emotions, as people often feel alone with their anxieties. For example, you could say, “Thank you for sharing that you feel stressed. That is understandable considering what is happening, and many other people are feeling the same way.”

Teach older adults to recognize and notice signs of stress. There can be behavioral, emotional, and cognitive responses to the stress of an infectious disease outbreak like COVID-19. Behavioral signs might include an increase or decrease in energy, increase in substance use, increase in irritability, trouble sleeping or relaxing, blaming other people for everything, worry excessively, crying frequently, and many other changes. Individuals may also notice changes in their body, such as having gastrointestinal distress, headaches, appetite changes, or being easily startled. Emotional or cognitive signs of stress can include feeling anxious or fearful, depressed, guilty, feeling invulnerable or euphoric, decreased concentration, and trouble remembering things. Work with the older adults in your life to learn about these signs and be prepared to address them if and/or when they occur. Ask yourself, at what point does the older adult know they need to reach out for help? What preventative measures can they take to stay healthy mentally and physically?

Lastly, discuss strategies to reduce symptoms of stress. While these should be implemented as preventative measures so that stress does not become unmanageable, it is essential to reassess strategies on an ongoing basis. Coping strategies look different for everyone, so do not instruct the older adults in your life on what to do. Instead, help them brainstorm and listen to what works for them. Help people limit excess exposure to the media coverage of COVID-19. Work on having a preparedness plan and taking preventative measures to stay safe and healthy, such as eating a healthy diet and washing hands regularly. Connect older adults to social supports where possible, including phone conversations or video conferencing with loved ones. Encourage them to voice their concerns or worries and normalize the stress that comes along with an infectious disease outbreak. Find ways for individuals to adapt their coping mechanisms if need be. Can a knitting group be connected over the phone? Can a pastor make a weekly call to check in an individual’s spiritual well-being? Get creative, listen to what works for each person, and find ways to reduce isolation even if the physical distance is still there.

  • For anyone experiencing distress related to COVID-19 you can reach out to SAMHSA’sDisaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs” to 66746 to get 24/7 crisis counseling and support.
  • Philadelphia residents can contact the 24-Hour Mental Health Delegate Line at 215-685-6440 to seek help for mental health crises.
  • For mental health and addiction services contact the Community Behavioral Health 24/7 hotline at 888-545-2600.
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.
  • The Philadelphia Domestic Violence Hotline is also available 24/7 at 1-866-723-3014.

In a psychiatric emergency please dial 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. Remember to always speak with your health care provider about medical concerns.