Despite the recent easing of lockdown restrictions, many of us are not finding it easy to bounce back from the stress, anxiety and depression felt over the past year. This is especially true of the elderly.
In recent months, Tafta social workers have identified ten new cases of mental illnesses within our Homes, bringing the number of elders affected to 207, or 13% of the total Tafta elder population.
Elders suffering from mental illness may need round the clock care, for their safety and the safety of others. We’ve had instances where an elderly person has become confused and accused other residents of harming them or stealing their possessions. Others may wander away and get lost.
Tafta provides a complete 24/7 frail care service to residents, including those who are not able to contribute much to their care, through the support of a special group of donors, our Tafta Guardians.
Signs of deteriorating mental health include feelings of fear, anger, sadness, worry or numbness; a lack of interest in activities that previously gave pleasure; insomnia; over eating or loss of appetite; constant tiredness; irritability; physical reactions such as headaches, stomach problems and skin rashes; and the inability to concentrate or make decisions.
It’s easy to understand why older people are suffering more. Statistically, they are at far greater risk of dying from the disease, especially if they have other underlying health conditions, which becomes more likely as we age.
This leads to a morbid fear of becoming infected and dying of Covid-19. A fear that is often exacerbated by younger family members, who encourage elders to stay at home and withdraw from daily life in order to stay safe.
“I’ll do the shopping for you,” we volunteer with the best of intentions, leaving our parents or grandparents sitting at home with nothing to do except dwell on the dangers out there, and the reinforcement of the message that they are ‘high risk’.
They may be safe from the disease at home, but withdrawing from daily life comes with its own problems. Human beings are social creatures. Spending time with friends, enjoying a chat and a good laugh, is essential to our wellbeing. If we are cut off socially, we may feel that we are losing our social skills; that we have forgotten how to interact with others, leading to further feelings of anxiety and isolation.
Relationships with friends and neighbours play an especially important role in the lives of elders … cushioning them from loneliness and giving them the confidence of knowing someone ‘has their back’ if help is needed. Owing to fear, the comfort and support of friendship may now be replaced by mistrust and actively avoiding contact.
This fear is heightened when a friend or neighbour tests positive. There is concern for the sick friend – “Will they make it?” – and also concern for themselves – “Have I also been infected?”
There may be fear of the test itself, and the stress of waiting for the results. If they test positive, it’s not just the disease they have to worry about, but also feelings of guilt and worry about those they may have infected … people with weak immune systems who may die because of them.
Developing the slightest symptom – a feeling of fatigue, breathless or a sore throat – leads to a conviction that they have been infected. And from there it’s just one small step to the worst case scenario. “I’ll be taken to hospital … put on a ventilator … and die alone, with no opportunity to say goodbye to my friends and family.”
Managing Covid-19 in an old age home
In a communal environment, such as an old age home, anyone suspected of having contracted the disease must be kept isolated, in order to protect others. Spending a week to ten days in isolation is extremely distressing. Older persons find comfort in familiarity and being surrounded by treasured possessions. Having to stay on their own in a strange room impacts their mental heath.
If you are caring for someone in isolation, you will need patience and a calm, reassuring attitude. Try bringing some of the elder’s small personal items into the room, such as a photograph, blanket or other meaningful possession that restores a feeling of familiarity and normality.
Those who are used to companionship and conversation find loneliness frightening and depressing. Ensure they have a good supply of books or magazines, or access to puzzles like crosswords, suduko and solitaire.
Too much information
Being aware and informed about the disease is helpful. But for those who use social media, there is a danger of being overwhelmed with a constant flood of news, information, myths, opinions, arguments and misinformation that easily leads to heightened anxiety and mistrust.
Retired people often have a great deal of spare time on their hands, making them more vulnerable to information overload. Try to encourage other healthier activities, such as going for a walk (if possible) or challenging friends to games that can be played virtually – online versions of chess and Scrabble are ideal, and can be played against opponents from all over the world, opening the door to new ‘virtual’ friendships.
Friendships, whether face to face or via digital channels, are a key component of human happiness. We cannot let Covid-19 take this away from us.