A bigger problem than COVID-19?

The coronavirus pandemic is worrying for many people, but particularly for the elderly. You’d be forgiven for thinking coronavirus is a death sentence for older people. But it’s not. The fear and anxiety it can create is, however, a potential major mental health problem.

Older people are susceptible to mental health issues and reporting of mental health difficulties can be significantly underreported as well. At this time, there is a significant risk of the worsening of these conditions and the development of them in people who previously didn’t display symptoms. The types of issues we might see are anxiety, depression, cognitive decline in dementia conditions and increase in alcohol abuse.

Anxiety attacks in older people becoming “contagious”
This type of anxiety can lead to anxiety attacks, which can include shortness of breath, chest pains and fear of heart failure, racing thoughts and uncontrollable thoughts of disaster, bladder problems, sleeplessness, rapid mood shifts, increased sweating, muscle aches, fatigue … Some of these symptoms look similar to the symptoms of COVID-19. This can obviously lead to a vicious cycle of increased anxiety. Anxiety can be ‘contagious’. We pick up on anxiety in others and that can amplify our own if we have it or make us feel anxious if we don’t. In this sense, social distancing might be helpful.

Understanding anxiety
One of the biggest ways to combat this response is to understand it thoroughly. Then you can reassure yourself, ‘Oh, I’m experiencing anxiety’ rather than coronavirus symptoms. Knowledge is power.

Follow the daily briefings
A major source of anxiety is the 24-hour news cycle that focuses on disaster, death counts and new developments across the globe. It might be a good idea to limit your contact with these outlets and, when you do check in, ensure you are choosing your information sources wisely i.e. government sources – the World Health Organisation, National Health Service or an equivalent health service. Follow the government briefings at www.health.gov.au

How to manage the mental health affects of self-isolation

Structure and routine: The loss of structure and routine is already identified as a major mental health issue for older people, and this can be worsened at this time. If you are moving to ’self-isolation’ to protect yourself from infection then it’s important to establish a new routine as quickly as possible. The first thing on your mental health shopping list is a weekly planner – ensure you have a routine about bed and waking times, food, ‘work’ activity, social connections via phone or computer, catching up on news, getting outside to exercise.

Remaining cognitively active for those with dementia: Ensure a good supply of board games, word games, investigate online support groups for dementia sufferers, get engaged in cooking, gardening, housework, playing music, etc.

Exercise: Stay active, the social distancing measures still allow you to go outside, just be careful about contact with others. Go for regular walks. Do home gym sessions – you could even use books as weights, use the good old army callisthenics! Practise your yoga and if you don’t do it yet, now is a good time to learn. Many personal trainers are offering online sessions right not, google for more information.

CBT: Learn cognitive behavioural therapy techniques online to improve your mental health toolkit. Many online resources exist and now you have the time use it. Try this resource as a starting point.

Practise meditation: Meditate regularly and if you don’t do mindfulness yet, then now is the time to learn. There are a lot of apps available to learn and one of them is Headspace. Or do a search on YouTube and there are many free very helpful resources.

Stop or manage drinking: Alcohol is not going to help. Alcohol abuse in elders is a significant problem and abuse of alcohol significantly contributes to mental health problems.

Get help from your community
The above steps will help with depression symptoms and anxiety. Another crucial step in maintaining or building wellbeing is how elders can become resources for each other. You may know other elders in your local community so reach out to them. Set up telephone contacts with each other. If you haven’t used Zoom or Skype to meet online, learn now. Have contact that is safe socially, observing infection control. Perhaps arrange to meet in the local park and form walking groups. Empowerment and self-efficacy are profoundly powerful tools in times when we feel so disempowered.

Noel McDermott is a psychotherapist and international speaker with more than 25 years’ experience in health, social care and education. He delivers bespoke training on a range of social care, clinical and human rights ethics and issues. He is the founder and CEO of three organisations: Psychotherapy and Consultancy Ltd, Sober Help Ltd and Mental Health Works Ltd. His company offers at-home mental healthcare and will source, identify and coordinate personalised care teams for the individual.

If you suspect you or a family member has coronavirus you should call (not visit) your GP or ring the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

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Related articles:
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Does COVID-19 advice ignore seniors
Preparing for coronavirus lockdown

Written by Noel McDermott

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