Addressing the Mental Health Concerns of Seniors in the Corona-virus World

by: Bunni Dybnis, MA, LMFT, CMC

COVID-19 has dramatically changed our world. The news, warnings, restrictions, instructions, double messages, shortages, politics, financial implications are never-ending.  Most are resilient.  After the initial chaos, fears, panic, and confusion, the emotional upheaval will settle down.  Most will adapt to the changing world as we have adjusted to life’s twists and turns.

For those who lack the psychological cushion, the present upheaval is of great concern.  Risk factors, background, and community supports will make adjusting more difficult for some. Those displaying complicated adjustment reactions with symptoms of prolonged depression, exaggerated anxiety, obsessions, loneliness, and traumatic stress, can suffer long-term effects.

Older people and those with chronic diseases will be more likely to be sicker and die from the Coronavirus. The extra warnings and restrictions add to the emotional and physical impact.

For Boomers over 60, who thought they could remain forever young, this can be a rude awakening. Active retirees enjoying the benefits of retirement have had that structure taken away. Identified as older adults those over 60 have been encouraged to stay at home and keep contacts to an absolute minimum. Travel, adult learning, recreation activities, group exercise, grandchildren, face-to-face volunteering are no longer options. Their younger cohorts often have employment or childcare responsibilities built into their daily lives their lives, thus making their changes less dramatic.

There are red flags to identify those that may be at a greater chance of despair and psychiatric meltdown.

  • Serious symptoms go up with age. Younger adults are vulnerable, but those in their 60s, 70s and particularly those in their 80s and 90s, have the most risk of dying.
  • The recent death of a loved one can intensify reactions of grief. Not being able to visit a critically ill loved one is heartbreaking. Having to mourn the loss of a loved one without formal ritual and community support can greatly impact the grieving process.
  • Physical decline, medical needs, loss of mobility, cognitive changes, social isolation, and risk of self-neglect and undue influence associated with aging continue to be a concern.
  • Both formal (paid) and informal (family and friends) caregivers are already at risk for burnout, depression, and stress on the immune system. Their own ability to cope with the virus exaggerates their risks.
  • Pre-existing conditions make things worse. Chronic health conditions, cancers, and other illnesses add to high morbidity rate.
  • Proximity to people who are at risk of carrying the virus, such as hospitalizations, medical symptoms, residency in nursing and homes senior living communities, all lead to stress.
  • Prior psychiatric history or substance abuse issues.
  • The way people have coped with stress, death, illness or other major life changes will give you insight into how they will cope with the fears of the virus.

Informal support of friends and family can be vital supporting many at risk. Skilled experienced professionals that are trained to work with older adults may be necessary.  

There are ways to mitigate the detrimental emotional fallout for older adults and those that are caring for them.

  • Address critical concerns that are unique to aging adults and those who care for them: Seek medical attention, support that is available through local senior services or hire a private Aging Life Care Manager to assess the situation. If there is a suspicion of self-neglect or elder abuse contact Adult Protective Services.
  • Support family and paid caregivers: To the extent possible, limit the number of people that are face-to-face with older adults. Prioritize critical needs. Supportive counseling or reaching out to those on the front line can be beneficial.
  • Continue treatment for underlying mental health conditions: If emotions become overwhelming and there is risk of harm to themselves or others, immediate actions should be taken. Call the treating medical professional or 911 for direction.
  • Maintain social connections and support technology: The expanded uses of technology have been the lifeline for millions who are now in mandatory social isolation. Many of the frailest old are not computer literate and unable take advantage of the tools.  Families, residential staff and trained professionals can assist.  Old-fashioned phone calls, letter writing, and care packages can connect. For unmet needs, there are numerous services that are geared specifically for seniors. Facilitating ordering groceries, medication and telemedicine with doctors can be vital.
  • Focusing on self-help of the body can calm and distract: People find comfort in different ways. Using meditation, walking, stretching, baths, engaging in conversation, reading, conversation, journaling can all be constructive.
  • Routine helps: Keeping a set schedule can help. Arranging for weekly schedule items as well.
  • Everything in moderation: Wise advice during the best of times, watch out for over indulging in food, drink, tv, or other behaviors that become destructive.
    • Getting necessary information and knowledge regarding the virus can be helpful but obsessing on reading, watching and listening to the news can be stressful and increase anxiety. It is important to think critically about information provided and stay focused on positive stories and progress.
    • Sharing a glass of wine with a friend during a virtual happy hour can be therapeutic. Over indulging or for those with substance abuse problemsthis can be detrimental.
  • Distraction: Around the country people are cleaning, cooking, home schooling and doing other chores to keep their minds from focusing on the present situation. Letting older adults do the household duties, projects, self-care or whatever else that can keep them safe, but distracted should be encouraged and maintained.
  • Asking for help can be empowering

If you are concerned, overwhelmed or uncertain, ask for help. Certified Aging Life Care Manager (  also known as a Geriatric Care Manager can assist. These professionals with backgrounds in nursing, social work, counseling, and related fields can provide assessments, identify needs and provide appropriate resources, as well as long term care as needed.

About the Author:

Bunni Dybnis, MA, LMFT, CMC is the President and Founder of Aging Life Matters.   She has spent the last twenty-five years supporting families and their trusted advisors addressing the often-complex issues of aging, end of life and family dynamics.  A Fellow in the Leadership Academy of the Aging Life Care Association Bunni has received multiple awards for her leadership, participation and achievements in geriatric care from both the Association and organizations both national and local.

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