Key Takeaways

  • Ask loved ones about their appetites, sleep patterns and moods to find red flags
  • Find creative ways to connect while still being physically apart
  • Arrange a few unprompted acts of kindness

The geriatric population, those who are 65 years and older, has been widely noted as among the most at risk of developing severe illness from COVID-19. Physical distancing has been the critical measure in the prevention and spread of infection within this age group.

However, while the physical health of the geriatric population has certainly been a topic of discussion during the COVID-19 pandemic, how has this period of isolation impacted the mental well-being of these individuals?

"Loneliness amongst the older population will be a much more insidious cause of casualty than we previously realized," says Matthew L Russell, MD, a geriatrician and palliative care specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

While seniors are experiencing the coronavirus crisis in several ways—depending on their living arrangements, finances and health—one circumstance is universal: everyone is more isolated than usual, resulting in many more cases of loneliness and anxiety.

In particular, people who are already prone to anxiety are especially challenged during the pandemic and can quickly escalate to a mind full of fearful and catastrophic thoughts. This can be the result of extended periods of isolation or, perhaps, over-consumption of alarming news stories related to the virus. Just like the notorious phone scammers of the past, sensational news programs prey on the elderly, especially now that more people are contained at home.

"Some of our patients on the more anxious end of the spectrum are feeling so challenged," says Dr. Russell. "They are worriers and now, with lifestyles that are so much quieter, the worry has become that much louder."

How to Support Seniors While Physical Distancing

People who have lived through economic depression, wars and other hardships may not be as likely to express unhappiness about the confinements of quarantine. If you suspect that your loved one is keeping negative emotions internal, it is important to communicate with them that it is okay and healthy to express difficult feelings in conversations with people they trust. While they may not necessarily ask for it, creating a space of self-awareness and compassion for them during these unprecedented times can be a tacit need.

"This is where the kindness and the compassion has to happen," says Dr. Russell. "Ask the questions that you would not necessarily normally ask, even if they have not prompted you to do so."

To provide support to seniors who may be suffering from loneliness during social isolation, he suggests:

  • Asking about their appetites, sleep patterns and moods to discover red flags
  • Finding creative ways to connect while still being physically apart, such as waving outside their windows or setting up a recurring Zoom event with the family
  • Arranging a few unprompted acts of kindness. For example, even if they say they have enough food, arrange for a delivery of groceries and include their favorite treats

A Silver Lining: Technology Adoption

Throughout the pandemic, all populations have been leaning on technology more than ever as tools for socializing with friends and family. As a result, many seniors have learned to adopt evolving technology, which they may not have prior to COVID-19.

The same is true for hospitals and health care providers. At the start of the coronavirus crisis in the United States, the Mass General Department of Medicine acted quickly to identify geriatric patients most at risk for loneliness and arranged for health care providers to proactively connect with these patients virtually to provide support and resources.

One resource that was created as a way to support the mental and emotional well-being of seniors is the department's recurring COVID-19 Town Hall series. These virtual forums bring together patients, artists and medical experts to address issues related to COVID-19 and its impact on the geriatric population. Additionally, Mass General offers virtual visits online or by phone.

"One benefit of virtual visits is that they actually allow us to see where a patient lives and how they are in their natural habitats," says Dr. Russell. "This can actually help providers get a better understanding of how home environments and caregivers influence patient health."

He adds, "Even if we are not moving the diagnostic needle, that is not what this is about. This is about healing, whenever you can, and comforting always. That's what we do as providers."