Emotional Wellbeing of Seniors during Pandemic

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis completed medical school at The University of Mississippi Medical Center and residency in general psychiatry in 2003. He completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2005. Following this, he served as Chief Medical Officer for 10 years of Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare a private health system including a 105-bed hospital, residential treatment, and intensive outpatient services.

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Ensuring the Emotional Well-Being of Seniors During a Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit a lot of seniors hard. It’s affected their mental and emotional well-being in many ways.
These include:

• Feelings such as fear, anger, sadness, worry, numbness, and/or frustration
• Isolation and decreased social interaction
• Loss or increase in appetite
• Decrease in energy
• Other physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches
• Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
• Difficulty sleeping or nightmares
• Worsening of chronic health problems
• Worsening of mental health conditions like depression
• Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.

These feelings are a normal reaction to the stress caused by the pandemic. It seems to strike seniors particularly hard.

Mental Health and Emotional Well-Being Challenges Among the Elderly

A study by AARP provides a wealth of data on the impact of the pandemic on adults over 50 years old. What makes this particularly important for mental health providers to address is that while real declines have been recorded among this group, older adults are less likely to seek the help they need.

When asked a generic question about their mental health, most adults aged 50 and above said it was very good. However, when responding to specific questions about factors that affect emotional health, the picture changed. Half said they experienced symptoms like anxiety and having little interest or feeling little pleasure in activities they used to enjoy. A third said they felt depressed.

What makes this particularly troubling is that only an eighth of the people in this age group have sought the assistance they need. Since cumulative effects can increase in severity if untreated, this can lead to dire outcomes if not addressed.

This disconnect between an individual experiencing a decline in emotional health while not seeking help from a professional may suggest that older adults don’t see the connection between emotional well-being and overall mental health.

This decline in their mental health and emotional well-being is not a normal condition in response to aging. If loved ones notice the symptoms of mental and emotional decline, they should help the individual receive compassionate care. The issue must be dealt with in a sensitive way as there may be hesitation on the part of older adults.

Specific Issues Exacerbated by the Pandemic

While the National Poll on Healthy Aging showed that most adults aged 50 or above showed a variety of symptoms despite overwhelmingly stating their mental health as excellent, very good, or good.

However, when they were asked specific questions related to emotional health, the following data emerged as regular occurrences over a 2-week period:
• 56% of respondents had sleep issues
• 49% dealt with anxiety
• 37% had lost interest and pleasure in prior activities
• 32% felt depressed, down, or hopeless

At some point, many older adults also experienced these issues:
• 77% were concerned about the future
• 76% felt a general sense of worry about life
• 69% had felt a greater sense of depression
• 68% felt more anxious
• 50% struggled with anger

The risk of suicide also increases. This correlates with increased social isolation, particularly in those who are retired. As a practical matter, many older adults have not been able to visit with grandchildren and other family members due to their concern with protecting them from COVID-19. Older individuals in nursing homes also are more likely to feel abandoned. The reality is that loved ones strive to keep their older relatives safe, but the emotional impact of safety measures is still keenly felt.

Some Coping Strategies are Healthy, but Others Are Not

Some common coping strategies have been used by adults of ages 50 and up. A quarter of them eat less healthy options such as sweets like candy and savory treats like chips. Not all coping strategies are unhealthy however. Over a quarter of the people surveyed increased the amount of time spent meditating or praying while over one in 10 tried supplements.
What was of great concern, however, is the increase in drug and alcohol use over the course of the pandemic. It’s estimated that alcohol abuse has increased by 31% and drug abuse by 29%.

One issue that affects those who participate in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or other groups that help people stay sober is the lesser accountability occurring in a Zoom meeting vs. in-person access. An individual who physically attends a meeting will be busted if he or she smells of alcohol, but that can’t happen over Zoom.

Women Are More Likely to Express Concerns

For all of the areas that evaluated emotional well-being, women were significantly more likely than men to say the pandemic affected their emotional state. For example:
• 55% of women were likely to express increased concerns about the future compared to 41% of men.
• 51% of women vs. 30% of men worry more due to the pandemic.
• Sleeplessness, depression, and anxiety were also more commonly cited by women.

Women were more likely to incorporate coping strategies. Some of these were healthy, such as meditation, prayer and taking helpful supplements. Other strategies, such as eating unhealthy foods, were more problematic. These are justified as a way to seek comfort, but weight gain caused by pandemic-influenced overeating is not conducive to either physical or emotional well-being.

Stress Levels

While older adults stated they experienced average levels of stress, these levels did climb during the pandemic. About 50% of adults in the 50-and-over age cohort rated their current stress level as average. Nevertheless, 77% stated that their stress levels have increased due to COVID-19. Surprisingly, the younger adults in this group, between 50 and 59, are the most likely to be troubled by higher levels of stress. For example, while only 10% of adults over 59 reported a high stress level, 18% in the 50-59 age group said they have high levels of stress.

Implications of Pandemic on Need for Help

It is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a negative emotional impact for many people. Certain groups have fared worse than others. The National Poll on Healthy Aging provides a comprehensive view of how COVID has impacted the emotional well-being of older adults and highlights other issues. For example, despite an increase in mental and emotional health challenges during the pandemic, fewer individuals seek the help they need.

Lack of Professional Services Sought

One source of frustration for those who care about older folks who are struggling with their emotional well-being is their refusal to seek professional help. Although a majority of adults aged 50 and up say they have experienced increased anxiety, depression, worry, and other challenges, only 12% chose to meet with professional healthcare providers.

What is interesting is that prior to the pandemic, 45% of those aged 50 or above stated they would have met with a therapist or other health professional. However, since the pandemic, only 32% sought the help they needed. This may be due to limited access to services due to the reality of COVID restrictions. Some older people are not comfortable sharing their experiences, while others find Zoom sessions difficult to manage. Not everyone over a certain age is comfortable with this technology.

To combat potential obstacles to mental and emotional health care, it is important to ensure an easy, seamless and normal process that empowers clients. It’s important to seek professional health services during this time of difficulty.

Programs That Can Address Your Mental and Emotional Health Needs

The issues that clients can struggle with can last for years, but in some cases, a few sessions with a trained therapist can be truly beneficial.

One center that provides a variety of options for mental and emotional healing is the Defining Wellness Center. Our compassionate professionals can help clients understand and recognize signs of traumatic experiences and help build coping skills. Several treatment options are available.

Gender-Specific Programs

While some people prefer or don’t mind mixed-gender treatment options, others need treatment programs that are gender specific. Providing treatment by gender can provide a more effective option in many cases. For some clients, their comfort and ability to fully engage with treatment are enhanced in this type of environment. They feel a greater camaraderie in this type of group, so they feel more comfortable sharing their experiences.

One factor that encourages gender-specific therapies is the differential risk associated with issues that disproportionately impact women vs. men. For example, women may suffer greater income inequality, be more greatly burdened by needing to care for family members or face a risk of gender-based violence.

On the other hand, while women are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression, men are more likely to admit to substance use issues. They are also more likely to commit suicide.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

This treatment modality has shown great value in treating everything from anxiety and depression to substance use disorders. The core principles of CBT include:
• Psychological issues are partly based on faulty thinking habits.
• They can also be based on unhelpful learned patterns of behavior.
• Individuals suffering from psychological challenges can find hope by working on developing better coping skills. This will help them relieve their symptoms.

CBT allows clients to change harmful thoughts into more useful and realistic ones. It can involve confronting fears, utilizing mindfulness and relaxation techniques, and finding alternative strategies via role-play to find better solutions to problematic situations.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)

Mindfulness is the core of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. The focus is on being fully aware and present, and on regulating emotions consciously. Because DBT is strongly reliant on in-the-moment coaching, it works well in inpatient settings.

Group Therapy

Many individuals have found group therapy to be a valuable tool for increased mental and emotional health. Most clients actually enjoy their sessions. It provides a safe setting to share thoughts and feelings with other individuals who struggle with similar problems.

Advantages of group therapy include offering insights into thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It allows individuals to develop problem-solving skills with fellow clients and to develop ways to resolve conflict and gain a sense of community.

Individual Therapy

Individual therapy allows the focus to be on you. Your counselor provides deeply personal and often intense guidance. They can help you work through your pain. This includes a wide array of mental health conditions including anxiety, depression and substance use disorders.

Dual Diagnosis

This is a useful option for many individuals who have two or more mental health conditions. In many cases, substance use disorder is a factor. Typically, in these instances, your team may include a psychiatrist, a therapist, a nurse and an addiction specialist.

Fitness and Nutrition

Nutritional deficiencies need to be addressed since they often correlate with issues of mental health. Healthy exercise boosts clients’ energy and endurance and helps them sleep better. Both are important to help clients recover.

As you can see, Defining Wellness Centers, offers a great deal of support that can help provide older people with the options they need to feel confident as they move forward with their lives. Feel free to contact our caring professionals for more information on how these programs can help you achieve emotional well-being.

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