Health, July 20, 2020, 5:47 p.m.

7 tips for protecting the emotional wellbeing of the elderly during COVID-19

Author: riaan@wecanchange.co.za

The COVID-19 lockdown locally, and worldwide, has disrupted people’s lives immeasurably and people’s anxiety levels are skyrocketing.

Of particular concern are the elderly who are not only at higher risk of contracting the virus, but are equally more predisposed to mental health conditions during this stressful period. Auria Senior Living – a leading developer and operator of senior living communities in South Africa – knows the importance of mental care for seniors as a critical component of general wellness and has a few suggestions for managing anxiety and stress in the elderly. 

 

1) Be selective about your media

 

Barry Kaganson, CEO of Auria Senior Living, says: “Being informed is important, but information overload can be a major cause of anxiety. Contrary to belief that social media is for the youth, senior citizens typically have more time to consume social media to keep in touch with the outside world and can easily become overwhelmed by it all. We generally suggest that our residents find a balance which allows them to stay up to date on current events, especially things which affect them directly like lockdown rules, but which doesn’t leave them bombarded by news from all sides.” Real or fake news, social media feeds and even well-meaning advice circulated among friends can all come together very quickly to induce panic. “Decide how much time you are going to give to the news each day or week, select your sources carefully, and then continue as best you can to live your ‘normal’ life,” says Kaganson. 

 

2) Stay in contact with friends and family – digitally!

 

Under South Africa’s lockdown rules, people have not been permitted contact with friends and family unless for exceptional circumstances. “This has also been the case with Auria, where access to our communities by extended family members has been restricted and residents have been discouraged from leaving our communities too,” says Kaganson. “Though we know how hard social distancing from loved ones can be, modern technology at least affords us the opportunity to maintain regular contact. In our communities, it’s amazing to learn from residents how a chat with a good friend or family member has lifted their spirits.” Take advantage of the opportunity that technology gives us to stay in contact and keep those lines of communication open. Our Auria team have set up family Skype stations so that residents and their families can keep in touch, and staff are always on hand to offer assistance if anyone is struggling with getting to grips with technology and online meeting platforms.

 

3) Look for support groups or inspirational content

 

Social media has its appeal and usefulness, especially for connecting seniors with friends and family that they can’t otherwise see, but a lot of news on these platforms can be negative and overwhelming, so curate your news feed to deliver you something supportive and useful rather than distressing. Rather than just telling yourself to be positive or get on with it in these difficult times, find ways to boost your positivity and share healthy coping skills on social forums or with other residents. “Older people have often lived through trying times and are able to share helpful insights and wisdom with peers and even younger generations,” says Kaganson.

 

4) Exercise

 

The benefits of exercise for mental health are just as important as they are for physical health. One of the best ways to feel good is to get regular exercise – even if it’s just for half an hour a few times a week. Movement is important at all ages and stages in life. “Though the gyms within our communities remain closed, we still encourage our residents to get outside and walk within the property as we know how good fresh air is for the mind and for the strength and agility of our residents,” says Kaganson. “The best way to counteract stress and anxiety is to fill your brain with the feel-good hormones that exercise gives you. We have circulated exercise videos and programmes on WhatsApp and email so that our residents can remain as active as possible at this time.”  Furthermore, a recently published study[1] shows that just 34 minutes of exposure to sunlight can help deactivate up to 90% of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus strain – making time outside even more important for the health of seniors.

5) ‘Mental fitness’ can help

 

The benefits of staying mentally fit have long been known and recommended for older adults. Stressful situations have the ability to exacerbate conditions such as dementia which is significantly higher among people over the age of 80, so it’s important to keep the mind active and stimulated. “Doing puzzles and word games or partaking in art or hobbies that encourage focus and the development of new skills, can help you keep mentally alert and potentially stave off the progression of dementia,” says Kaganson. “We’ve seen great results amongst our own dementia residents by making sure that they have opportunities to take part in activities such as gardening, baking or craft clubs, and have access to resources such as libraries, games and puzzles to keep them stimulated.” Every week a new ‘online’ activities programme is sent to our residents with various options to keep them entertained and busy. New crossword and Sudoku puzzles are available each week from Auria’s concierge desk and there are also two online Zoom quizzes a week.

 

6) Watch what you eat

 

Along with exercise and mental fitness, our diet can play an enormous role in our mental wellbeing. You don’t need expensive supplements or a complicated eating plan if you are otherwise healthy – just a good, balanced diet will do the trick. “We know the importance of adequate nutrition in maintaining the good health of our residents, so we always ensure the availability of balanced, appealing and affordable meals in our communities which is something that families with loved ones in senior living communities in particular need to be cognisant of,” says Kaganson.

 

7) Know when to seek help

 

We are living through a time of unprecedented change. Whether you have concerns about physical symptoms you may be experiencing or whether you find yourself in a state of emotional distress, knowing when to seek help is key. “Since the primary focus at present is on limiting the spread of the coronavirus, seek medical advice if you are concerned that you may have it and don’t dismiss anxiety, depression or similar symptoms just because you think they aren’t life-threatening,” says Kaganson. “Our children and significant others all pick up on our mental distress, so if your symptoms are interfering with your daily functioning or causing distress in your family, it is wise to seek counselling. In our communities, telephonic counselling and welfare calls take place daily to support residents during lockdown.”