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Helping seniors fight the effects of social isolation

Last Modified: April 20, 2020

Healthy Mind, Community

Senior Isolation

This post was written by Michelle Starnes, MSW, LCSW, manager, LifeBridge IOP Senior Program at Parkview Wabash Hospital, and Leah Heaston, MSW, LCSW, LCAC, ACSW, manager, LifeBridge Senior Program, Parkview LaGrange Hospital.

Now that we are weeks into learning to deal with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), social distancing is a familiar term and a new way of living for most of us. Having to self-isolate at home as much as possible and keeping physical distance from others, can be a challenge for anyone. For individuals living with depression, anxiety, stress other mental health issues or grief, it can be excruciating. What makes social distancing so difficult for some is that it can lead to social isolation.

Social isolation is especially problematic for individuals who live alone or have limited social supports to begin with (close friends, nearby family members and others they feel care about their well-being) while also coping with depression or anxiety. Many older adults find themselves in this life situation, and they may have unique challenges in coping throughout this pandemic.  

Community centers, support groups, fitness programs and social clubs have closed. Streets and parks are sometimes empty. Familiar, ingrained routines are gone. Many people are feeling alone. Like everyone else, older adults may be experiencing increased levels of fear related to their own health, the health of loved ones, or having enough food, supplies and medications to weather the stay-at-home mandate. This fear may also be fueled by the unrelenting gloom in the current news cycles.

For some people, this may be an even more intense time because they’ve lost a spouse, significant other or adult child in the past year, or a friend or even a beloved pet has passed away. They may be facing financial worries for themselves or their families. Staying confined in their homes may be affecting their mobility, aggravating pain or chronic health concerns. 

Reaching out and offering encouragement

You may be asking what you can do to help an older person through all of this, especially when they may struggle to identify a specific need. While taking care of physical needs is important, don’t forget about the need for social connectedness. Reach out to your neighbor, your parents, grandparents, church member or any older adult you may know just to connect and offer support and encouragement. A brief phone call can go a long way in lifting a person’s spirits and building hope. There have been numerous “drive-by” greetings and celebrations shared on social media, which are heartwarming to see. Some people are visiting family members in long-term-care facilities by standing outside their loved one’s window. These caring gestures mean a lot for those struggling with social isolation, especially older adults.

Challenge yourself to think creatively about how you can show someone they’re important to you without having to be present physically.

Connecting seniors and equipping them to cope

At LifeBridge Senior Program in Wabash and LaGrange counties, we are doing our part to ensure that our patients remain connected to each other and to our treatment program. We’re taking advantage of video communication platforms, such as Zoom, to provide virtual visits, or teletherapy. However, providing treatment to older adults in rural communities who have limited access to, or familiarity with, technology can present some hurdles. To meet the unique needs of some of our patients, we are “gathering together” for group therapy through conference calls several times per week. And while there have been some awkward moments as we’ve all adjusted to this change, our patients have expressed appreciation for being able to stay in touch this way. The groups offer patients human connection and emotional support while lifting spirits and reminding patients to use positive coping strategies in the face of the isolation they are experiencing.

We provide individual therapy sessions by phone and Zoom to ensure that our patients work through distressing emotions caused by the pandemic. We also employ crisis intervention strategies and medication management as needed.

LifeBridge Senior Program is supporting older adults by focusing on these areas during the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps some of these topics will be helpful as you connect with your senior loved ones:

  • Talking openly about the experience and their emotions
  • Understanding what are “normal” feelings during this time that does not feel “normal”
  • Helping them develop resilience through:
  • Caring attachments and connections
  • Confidence in decision-making or choices that increase feelings of control
  • Building a sense of meaning and purpose
  • Focusing on (reliable) facts – not fears
  • Building on personal strengths and abilities
  • Acceptance of circumstances that cannot be changed
  • Developing a sense of gratitude in a world of scarcity
  • Keeping the mind where the feet are – staying present, mindful, grounded
  • Knowing when and whom to ask for help when it’s needed
  • Building routines and schedules to give the day meaningful structure

If you are struggling, or know an older adult who is struggling with mental health issues or isolation, please don’t suffer in silence. Help is available for you. Call LifeBridge Senior Program in Wabash at 260-569-2111 or in LaGrange at 260-463-9270. Leave a voicemail message and a member of the LifeBridge team will return your call. Or you can email regarding LifeBridge in Wabash County, or regarding LifeBridge in LaGrange County. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255 or the Parkview Behavioral Health Institute HelpLine at 260-373-7500 or 800-284-8439 to talk with someone immediately.

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