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How to help seniors calm anxiety during the COVID-19 crisis

There is a lot of concern in the world right now regarding the Coronavirus (COVID-19), particularly for a senior population that is at a higher health risk from the virus. Many older adults have underlying medical conditions that increase their risk of serious illness related to the virus and other infectious diseases. With the intense and constant news coverage of the pandemic, seniors are repeatedly exposed to media messages that can spark fear and anxiety.

If you are taking care of an elderly parent or loved one, or are a senior yourself, it’s important to use healthy techniques to manage stress and calm anxiety. Keeping mentally, spiritually and physically healthy is important in dealing with these uncertain times.

Here are some ways to help calm anxiety:

Stay connected

While the world practices social distancing, it is important to keep in touch with your loved one. It is vital for their well-being, sense of community, love, reassurance and support.

Technology provides many tools to help keep us engaged with one another in times where we cannot be together physically. Families can keep in touch through phone calls and video calls through Skype or FaceTime. If your loved one is in a senior living or skilled nursing community, ask about the options they offer for video chatting.

“While daily calls may be helpful for some, others who are anxious might respond to morning and evening calls, while some may find daily calls overwhelming,” says Deborah Greatrix-Tyler, Chaplain for Elderwood Skilled Nursing and Assisted Living Communities. “For those with memory issues or dementia who may not fully comprehend or realize the ramifications of the current pandemic situation, more frequent calls may create anxiety. Each caregiver needs to ascertain the individual needs and comfort level of their loved one.”

For those living at home, visits should be kept minimal except for the primary caregiver. However, that doesn’t mean family can’t visit from a far. Have a sidewalk chat or bring signs with friendly messages for your loved one. Many senior living communities also welcome family to stand outside a window to maintain that personal face to face connection.

Take time to decompress

It’s important to take time to decompress from the stress that the pandemic is causing. Encourage your loved one to meditate, play soothing music or utilize aromatherapy such as lavender which is shown to have a calming effect.

“Take deep breaths every day…breathe out the worry and anxiety. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth. Repeat. Be mindful of your breathing and relax.  Studies show that this reduces anxiety and slows heart rate,” said Greatrix-Tyler.

This is a great opportunity to go outside and enjoy nature, while practicing social distancing. If your loved one is at home, encourage them to go outside and sit in their backyard or perhaps take a socially distanced walk in their neighborhood.

If your loved one resides in a senior care community encourage them to take advantage of time outside to breathe in some fresh air. Many communities have patio areas, gardens, or offer supervised walks to ensure residents remain distanced. 

Embrace faith

If your loved one is spiritual or religious, encourage them to tap into their faith to help them through this unsettling time. “Faith is important to remind us that although we may be physically isolated from one other, we are not isolated from God. We are connected to one another in faith – both in the present community, as well as to the generations that came before us who practiced the same traditions,” said Greatrix-Tyler.

While many religious denominations have canceled regular worship celebrations there are still ways to stay connected with faith. Many local churches are now offering live-streaming or YouTube videos of their services, which you can help your loved one to access through a smartphone, tablet or laptop. 

Engage in life review

Another coping technique involves asking your elderly loved one how they have coped and managed during other troubling times. “During this time of separation and feelings of loneliness and anxiety, talk therapy and life review are important aspects of mental health and a source of peace and calm,” said Greatrix-Tyler.

“Our seniors have been a source of inspiration. They maintain positive attitudes throughout this pandemic. They are the greatest generation. Some may have survived the Great Depression, World War II, and the Holocaust. They have incredible well-developed inner strength, resilience, fortitude, faith, courage, wisdom and deep sources of coping.”

Help your loved one to verbalize and then draw from their inner strength, faith and fortitude that sustained them through past crisis. Sometimes bringing out old photos, even if through digital means, can help seniors to connect with their past and inner strength.

Limit media exposure

Although it is important to stay informed - constant news may increase anxiety as seniors may keep hearing news about the elderly being most at risk.

A good rule of thumb is to avoid watching the news at least two hours before bedtime. Seniors can read a book or watch their favorite show or movie to keep their mindset calm.

Develop a plan

If your senior loved one’s thoughts are constantly filled with anxious “what if” scenarios, help them normalize and take control of the situation. Often, the simple act of “talking it out” helps people minimize fears by purging or releasing them. Talk through all the possibilities and formulate a plan. A sense of control will reduce anxiety and having a plan will help reduce fear and worry. 

If you or your elderly loved one feels overcome with anxiety and stress that does not seem to be improving, contact your primary physician via phone call. For spiritual support and counseling, contact your pastor, priest, rabbi or your loved one’s senior care community for options. You can also check with your insurance provider to see what types of Telehealth options are available.

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