Covid Isolation and Mental Health of Aging Parents: What Can Families Do?

Almost everyone will tell you that they are tired of staying at home, avoiding groups and trying to protect themselves from infection. Our aging loved ones are particularly hard hit, as they are the first to have to return to strong protective measures during a power surge. If your elderly parent lives in a seniors’ community, visitation may be restricted or banned altogether. It’s very hard for families when the elder one in your life isn’t tech savvy and can’t just go on Zoom with you.

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

depression

Imagine being in the situation of an aging parent having to stay at home or stay away from whatever they love to do because of Covid surges. Things get better and then go backwards. Any of us can become depressed under these circumstances. Adult children who believe in the science behind disease transmission will not encourage older loved ones to ignore the restrictions and simply go out and risk dangerous exposure to others who may be carrying the virus. Older people who become depressed from isolation pay the price for following recommended safe practices. But we want them to stay alive and safe. During this pandemic, is there anything we can do to counteract the outcome of following the safety rules they are subject to?

For years I’ve heard doctors tend to overlook depression in older patients and dismiss it as “just getting old.” Older customers themselves report this to us at AgingParents.com. It’s unfair to ignore depression in our aging loved ones! Most of the time we can help. We all should focus more on how pervasive these mental health issues are, how likely isolated elders (and others too) are to become sad and feel hopeless and disconnected. And we need to look at the problem with the same concern and care that we look to any other physical ailment.

What families can do

One observation from personal experience is that many older adults are not used to labeling their feelings of unrelenting sadness and loss of interest in life as “depression.” They are generally not used to showing their feelings openly, especially when they are feeling weak or embarrassed. A caring family member can ask, “Are you sad now, Mom?” Or you can say, “I’ve noticed that you don’t seem very happy, Dad, and you seem sad.” Both are an invitation for them to express what they are feeling inside. Their kind willingness to listen and go there with them can open the door for you to learn more. If you’re seeing what seems more than your aging parent just “a little down,” look out for some common warning signs of depression. If you see these and they don’t go away, consider encouraging your elder to seek treatment. Stand up for it. You don’t have to be an expert to spot the signs. You also don’t have to have personal experience with noticing these things, but it can help if you do. You might have an idea how it feels – awful.

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

  1. The “blues” that won’t go away after a week or two. You may see a sad expression on your face, changes in tone of voice, and negative attitudes toward anything 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, to engage with others, even by phone or computer.
  5. Sleeping for a seemingly excessive amount above their normal level.
  6. Anger over seemingly trivial things. Persistent irritability. Outbreaks.

This is by no means a complete clinical description of the signs of depression, as they can vary significantly from person to person. Most importantly, any of the things listed above can be manifestations of something other than depression. Watch out for them, though, especially as things appear and persist together on this short, incomplete list.

What is the treatment for depression?

Treatment begins with a conversation with a licensed therapist or clinical psychologist. You can find one through your aging parent’s GP or through referrals from people you trust. Often the doctor has to work hand-in-hand with the therapist, since antidepressants can only be prescribed by a doctor. An examination by the MD, even if zoomed in on your computer or one where your aging parent lives, can help determine if the signs you’re seeing are due to something other than depression.

If your aging loved one is willing to seek help and see a therapist, a lot of the work is done through telemedicine these days. You don’t have to leave your own home. If there is a hearing loss, help them adjust to it with headphones. Psychologists and other therapists know that even talking about your feelings can be therapeutic. The therapist encourages the elder to open up about what is going on inside him, all the dark feelings and struggles. It can be very helpful to vent your emotions with a trained person who can guide you in how to manage them. If the depression is at a level that the therapist believes medication can help, he or she may also suggest a visit via telemedicine, to the GP or a psychiatrist who can prescribe it. Talk therapy combined with antidepressant medication can be a blessing, even if it’s just about ending isolation and so many limitations. Often it works. Symptoms subside, moods lift, and the elderly are more willing to connect with what feels good to them.

None of us alone can stop the consequences of our aging parents’ limitations, which lead to depression. But we can notice, respectfully ask them how they’re feeling, and advocate for them to get help. Not all aging parents will accept it. But for those who do, with the support available, their world can change dramatically. Don’t we all want them to be better off?

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