New tip sheet looks at mental health effects of COVID-19 on older adults

Liz Seegert

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in NextAvenue.com, Journal of Active Aging, Cancer Today, Kaiser Health News, the Connecticut Health I-Team and other outlets. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University and co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

Photo: Elvert Barnes via Flickr

The COVID-19 pandemic has put us all under tremendous stress. Social isolation, loneliness, fear of getting sick, an uncertain economy … the list goes on. According to a mid-July Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll, 53% of adults in the United States reported negative mental health effects due to concern and anxiety about the novel coronavirus.

One demographic at especially high risk of mental health issues is older adults, due to their higher probability of contracting the disease, known mental and physical health consequences of isolating, and existing co-morbidities. “The share of older adults (ages 65 and up) reporting negative mental health impacts has increased since March,” according to KFF.

As previously reported, loneliness and isolation among seniors are ongoing public health concerns, linked to reduce lifespan and poorer health outcomes. Whether they live in the community or in long term care facilities, older adults have been forced to limit their contact with caregivers and family, further compounding the feelings of isolation. “an unintended consequence is that distancing can further isolate older adults who may already be at risk for loneliness or social disconnection,” writes Jamie Aten, M.D. in Psychology Today.

Older adults are particularly at-risk for depression, which is often misdiagnosed and undertreated within this population. The prevalence of depression increases for those who require home health care or are hospital patients, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Suicidal thoughts are also a mental health risk among this population — nearly one out of five suicide deaths were among older people in 2018, the majority (80%) among males.

A recent study in the Journal of Gerontology confirms that older adults’ mental health was negatively impacted by sheltering in place. “Loneliness was associated with higher levels of depression for older adults who felt closer to their social networks during the pandemic. Conversely, older adults who felt less close to their social networks experienced more depression, irrespective of their loneliness. They experienced greater depression and loneliness than they had prior to the pandemic,” researchers found. You can read a summary of the study in this Associated Press story by Traci Pedersen.

Then there are the intertwined mental and physical effects. For example, fear of exposure may keep older adults from keeping up with routine medical care, going to the supermarket or even refilling medications. According to the National Institutes on Aging, loneliness can exacerbate high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, depression and weaken the immune system.

Family, friends and neighbors can help keep older people physically and mentally safe. The CDC recommends knowing what medications their loved one is taking and ensuring there’s an extra supply on hand; monitoring food and helping them stock up on non-perishable items or medical supplies and creating a back-up plan can help minimize trips to the store. Those with relatives or friends in long term care facilities should be in frequent contact with administrators and staff to remain informed about any potential outbreaks, understand what’s being done to ensure residents’ safety, and calling their loved one regularly to help ease the anxiety and loneliness.

This crisis-within-a-crisis is something journalists should not ignore. A new tip sheet reviews additional statistics on mental health issues among older adults, the negative health effects brought on by loneliness, anxiety and depression, and suggests resources, experts and story ideas to help jump-start your reporting.

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