MENTAL HEALTH

Pandemic isolation hits seniors especially hard

Because of the COVID-19 coronavirus, in-person visits with family and friends had to be halted at care centers and nursi
Because of the COVID-19 coronavirus, in-person visits with family and friends had to be halted at care centers and nursing homes across the country. Some people resorted to seeing their loved ones through windows. (AP Photo)

Scroll to the bottom of this article for information on where to find and get help.

The effort to prevent transmission of the novel coronavirus may be having unintended dire consequences on older Iowans — particularly those living in nursing homes across the state.

As public health officials urge Iowans to stay home and maintain social distance to combat the spread of COVID-19, adults are staying away from activities and congregate settings they enjoyed. As a result, people are reporting increasing rates of loneliness and social isolation in Iowa as well as the rest of the country.

Social isolation is not only impacting more people, but those who were impacted by this issue before the pandemic are “worse off,” said Harrison March, community engagement coordinator for the Heritage Area Agency on Aging, which is based in Cedar Rapids.

But for those living in nursing homes, the separation may feel more extreme. Since the pandemic was declared in March, long-term care facilities have been on lockdown, meaning many residents have been unable to see their loved ones in person for months.

For 75-year-old David Scott, a resident of Hallmar Nursing Home in Cedar Rapids, that meant he couldn’t spend his April birthday with his family. His wife, Linda Scott, threw him a party in the parking lot outside the nursing home within view of David’s third floor window, but even that celebration couldn’t improve his mood.

Linda said her husband’s connection to his family is something “he always appreciated and needed,” and the separation has been rough.

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“It really hit him hard,” she said. “He was pretty depressed for a while.”

Dr. Clete Younger, a UnityPoint Health-Cedar Rapids physician and medical director of seven nursing homes across the city, has seen more symptoms of depression and more instances of “giving up” among residents — they are not eating or drinking as much as they should.

“They’re emotionally stuck, and there’s only so much we can do about it,” Younger said.

While it can range among the variety of residents, the average life expectancy for residents of nursing homes under two years, Younger said.

“If your life expectancy is 14 to 24 months, what confidence is there that this COVID-19 situation will be better in your lifetime? It becomes a very emotional moment, because nothing we currently have tells us that everything will be back to normal in 14 to 24 months,” Younger said. “If you think through that thought process, you see where people feel like they want to give up.”

Loneliness and isolation can cause a profound impact on the mental and physical health of older adults. Studies have linked loneliness to anxiety and depression, as well as health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

According to a study published in the journal by the Association for Psychological Science, the damage caused by isolation and loneliness can increase the risk of early death by 26 percent — or the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It’s also costs an estimated $6.7 billion in additional costs to Medicare every year, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute.

A long term problem

Social isolation has been a concern long before the pandemic reached the United States, aging experts say.

According to a March 2019 study published by the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation, one in four adults aged 50 to 80 said they felt isolated sometimes. One in three older adults said they lacked regular companionship.

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“If they were feeling it before, they’re feeling it more than before,” said March with Heritage Area Agency on Aging. “They’re taking limited trips outside, having limited interactions with others. They may have relied on congregate meal settings or relied on church for social interactions, so even if they were well established, the opportunities just aren’t there.”

This is especially true during the winter months, when the weather and some individuals’ mobility challenges make it difficult to get outside the house.

This year, officials at Heritage Agency on Aging are worried the cold weather will compound the impacts already seen by the pandemic.

“My biggest worry is getting into habits of isolation. People may be used to not going to church and coffee with others,” March said. “Isolation and loneliness could be taking root.”

Where to get help

If you or someone you know is struggling mentally with isolation, here is where to find help locally:

• Foundation 2 crisis line: Talk with trained counselors 24 hours a day by calling (319) 362-2174 in the Cedar Rapids area or 1-(800) 332-4224 anywhere else in Iowa. Chat with counselor by text at 1-(800) 332-4224 and follow the prompts. Text chat is available Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Both lines also are suicide helplines. Find more resources at foundation2.org.

• Covenant Family Solutions: Offering free 30-minute mental health coaching sessions, either in person, via telehealth or via telephone. Call (319) 261-2292 or visit covenantfamilysolutions.com to schedule.

• COVID Recovery Iowa: Free virtual counseling and assistance for all Iowans affected by COVID‑19. Call 1-(844) 777-WARM or visit covidrecoveryiowa.org.

• Professional organizations: The American Psychological Association (locator.apa.org) and the American Psychiatric Association (finder.psychiatry.org) can help find a therapist in your area.

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