Covid Isolation And Aging Parents’ Mental Health: What Can Families Do?

Just about anyone will tell you they’re tired of staying home, avoiding groups and trying to stay safe from infection. Our aging loved ones are particularly hard hit, because when any surge happens they are the first to have to go back into strong protective measures. If your aging parent lives in a seniors’ community of any kind, visitation may be restricted or prohibited altogether. It’s very hard on families when the elder in your life isn’t tech-savvy and can’t just get on Zoom with you.

Sometimes it’s hard for aging parents to connect with you due to hearing loss. It’s difficult enough on the phone without Covid restrictions. Anyone who has tried to instruct an elder with hearing loss about something on the computer without being physically present knows what this frustration is like. Sometimes your loved one has memory loss issues or dementia and they just can’t learn new information about using technology. So they stay isolated and you stay worried. The result can be a loved one with depression.

Depression

Imagine yourself in an aging parent’s situation of having to stay home or stay away from everything they like to do because of Covid surges. Things get better and then go backwards. Any of us can get depressed under those circumstance. Adult children who believe the science around disease transmission aren’t going to encourage aging loved ones to ignore the restrictions and just go out and risk dangerous exposure to others possibly carrying the virus. Elders who get depressed due to isolation are paying the price of abiding by the recommended safe practices. But we want them to stay alive and safe. Is there anything we can do during this pandemic to counteract the result of following the safety rules they face?

For years I’ve heard that physicians tend to overlook depression in older patients, dismissing it as “just getting old”. Older clients themselves report this to us at AgingParents.com. It is unfair to ignore depression in our aging loved ones! It can be helped most of the time. We all should focus more on how pervasive this mental health problems is, how likely it is that isolated elders (and others too) can become sad, and feel hopeless and disconnected. And we need to see the problem with the same concern and care we seek for any other physical ailments.

What Families Can Do

An observation from personal experience is that many older adults are not used to describing their feelings of unrelenting sadness and loss of interest in life as “depression”. They may not be used to revealing their feelings openly, in general, particularly when they feel weak or embarrassed. A caring family member can ask: “are you feeling sad now, Mom?” Or you can say, “I’m noticing that you don’t seem to have much to look forward to, Dad and you seem sad”. Both are an invitation to them to express what they may be feeling inside. Your kind willingness to listen and go there with them can open the door for you to learn more. If you are seeing what looks like more than your aging parent just being “a little down”, be aware of some common warning signs of depression. When you see these and they don’t go away, consider encouraging your elder to seek treatment. Advocate for it. You don’t have to be any sort of expert to see the signs. You don’t have to have personal experience with noticing these things either, but it can be helpful if you do. You may have an inkling of how it feels—awful.

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Some warning signs, which are not exclusively related to depression, but can be, are these:

  1. The “blues” that don’t go away after a week or two. You may see sad facial expression, changes in the tone of one’s voice, and negative attitudes toward everything you try to discuss.
  2. Loss of appetite, loss of interest in things he or she would normally enjoy.
  3. Significant weight change up or down.
  4. Apparent unwillingness to do things, engage with others even by phone or computer.
  5. Sleeping for what seems like an excessive amount over their normal.
  6. Anger over seemingly trivial things. Persistent irritability. Outbursts.

This is by no means a complete clinical description of signs of depression, as they can vary considerably from person to person. Most important, each of the things listed above can be manifestations of something other than depression. However, watch for them, particularly if things on this short, incomplete list appear together and persist.

What Is Treatment For Depression?

Treatment starts with speaking with a licensed therapist or clinical psychologist. You can find one through your aging parent’s primary care physician or by referral from trusted others. Often, the physician needs to work hand in hand with the therapist, as prescription for anti-depressant medication can only come from a Medical Doctor. An exam by the MD, even if by zoom on your computer or one where your aging parent lives can help determine whether the signs you’re seeing are attributable to anything else, other than depression.

If your aging loved one agrees to seek help and see a therapist, much work nowadays is done through telemedicine. They don’t have to leave their own residence. If there is a hearing loss, you help them adjust to that with headphones. Psychologists and other therapists know that even talking about one’s feelings can be therapeutic by itself. The therapist encourages the elder to reveal what is going on inside, all the dark feelings and struggles. It can help a lot to air one’s emotions with a trained person who can guide one in ways to cope with them. If the depression is at a level the therapist thinks can be helped by a medication, he or she can suggest a visit also by telemedicine, with the primary care physician or a psychiatrist who can prescribe it. Talk therapy combined with anti-depressant medication, even if it’s just to the end of isolation and so many restrictions, can be a blessing. Often, it works. Symptoms lessen, moods lift, and the elder is more willing to connect with what feels good to them.

None of us alone can stop the results of restrictions on our aging parents that lead to depression. But we can notice, respectfully ask them how they are feeling, and advocate for them getting help. Not every aging parent will accept it. But for those who do, their world can change dramatically with the support available. Don’t we all want them to feel better?

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