Caring for the Mental Health of Seniors

For some households, the pandemic has been an opportunity to slow down, reconnect with loved ones, and count the many blessing of home.  But for many others, especially older adults living alone in isolation, the loneliness, anxiety, stress, and fear associated with months of quarantine and distancing has taken a significant toll on emotional and mental well-being. 

According to the Institute on Aging, the ongoing pandemic has strained the coping strategies of many seniors who have been unable to gather with friends and family. With the chronic stress of isolation, more older adults may have had thoughts of suicide.  But there are steps that individuals and loved ones can take, even from a distance, to help seniors feel supported and valued while continued distancing is necessary. 

Now the winter months are upon us, taking time to check in with seniors is more important than ever.  The holiday season can be especially difficult for elderly adults who have lost a spouse, who live alone, and for those who are separated by distance from family and close friends.  When in-person visits aren’t possible, dropping in on older adults virtually with a video call can help catch any changes in behavior or lifestyle that might be missed on an audio call or through text.  Families can see if seniors are taking care of their appearance, keeping the home tidy or the fridge stocked, and intervene if something seems amiss. 

Noticing a lack of participation can also be a red flag that mental health may be suffering.  When calls go unreturned or invitations to virtual gatherings are ignored or declined, it may be a sign that the strain of the pandemic is becoming a problem.   According to a recent Washington Post article, normalizing conversations about mental health may help people open up more.  Asking questions about well-being, and really listening to the answer, can make a big difference. Letting someone know you care about them and will be checking in regularly can be a relief for a person struggling with depression and anxiety. 

If a family member or close friend expresses thoughts of self-harm, let them know you appreciate their courage and trust for sharing their feelings, but don’t promise to keep secrets.   Assure loved ones you will help connect them with a therapist or a crisis hotline; family and friends may also want to seek professional guidance.  

Staying connected with calls, video chats, handwritten letters, and little gifts can help older adults feel more supported.  Concerned friends or family members can plan a distanced walk to spend some time outdoors when the weather permits or start a craft project and compare progress each week.  Even in isolation, we can still be connected and empathy and kindness will help us all get through this together. 

If you are seriously concerned about the safety of a loved one, take steps to remove any harmful substances or weapons from the home.  In a crisis, you can text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor 24/7 at no charge in the US and Canada.  In the UK, text 85258, and in Ireland, text 50808 or message Crisis Text Line on Facebook.   A trained, live crisis counselor will receive and respond to texts from a secure online platform.