About a quarter of seniors live alone, and many report regularly experiencing loneliness. Fifteen percent of seniors have a mental health diagnosis such as depression or anxiety. The COVID-19 crisis has the potential to exacerbate senior loneliness, triggering a mental health crisis with ripples that can affect an entire family. Senior mental health is about more than just feeling happy. Poor mental health can negatively affect a senior’s health and steadily erode their quality of life. Here’s why mental health matters more than ever for overall well-being.
The Loneliness Epidemic and Health
Humans–even introverts, even those who need lots of time alone–are social beings. We crave contact with others. All people need to feel connected and valued, like their lives and contributions are important. Loneliness can leave seniors feeling like they don’t matter. This presents serious health concerns. In fact, government researchers have called loneliness a public health epidemic that can harm health as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Some other health effects of loneliness include:
- Declines in cognitive function. In one study, adults who reported loneliness showed worse cognitive functioning 4 years later, suggesting that loneliness may be a risk factor for dementia.
- A weaker immune system that may make it easier to get life-threatening infections, including COVID-19.
- High blood pressure and heart disease.
- Depression and anxiety.
- Premature death.
Seniors are significantly more vulnerable to COVID-19 than other groups which leaves them with an imperative to stay home and avoid others to potentially save their lives. But in so doing, they may undermine both long and short-term health. It leaves many seniors questioning why they’re staying home to protect a life that feels lonely and, in some cases, increasingly less valuable.
How Mental Health Affects Physical Health
Poor mental health presents many of the same issues as loneliness. Declines in psychological health increase the risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, which in turn elevate the risk of dying from COVID-19, as well as other infections. It can also make it more difficult for a person to make healthy choices.
Seniors who feel depressed or anxious may struggle to exercise, make healthy meals, or enjoy previously beloved hobbies. In this way, the loneliness of the pandemic may initiate a vicious cycle of declining mental health that undermines physical health. The consequences will extend well beyond the lock down.
Improving Mental Health to Improve Overall Well-Being
Amid a worldwide lock down, it’s hard for anyone to achieve their full potential and live their best life. That doesn’t mean that seniors must resign themselves to sadness or loneliness. A number of strategies can help ease the pain of loneliness today:
- Get moving. Physical activity such as going for a walk or gardening can improve your health and ease symptoms of depression.
- Practice mindfulness and meditation. These practices can ease stress, help you better cope with isolation, and may even improve your long-term health.
- Find new ways to connect with others. Senior pen pal programs are a great option for people who want to support seniors in their communities. Seniors should consider scheduling regular video chats, opening a social media account, or even blogging about their time in quarantine.
- Use the lock down to master a new hobby. Order some seeds and plant a garden. Dig into that challenging book you’ve been staring at on the shelf. Make a family photo album. Time is your most valuable asset, and the quarantine has given you lots of it.
- Spend time with your pets, or consider adopting an animal companion. Pets improve mental and physical health. They also give you something to do during quarantine, and may ease loneliness. Walking a dog, building a chicken coop, and stroking a cat are all great ways to pass the time. If you choose to rescue an animal, you’ll be giving back to another being whose life has been thrown into disarray during the pandemic.
Quality senior living communities are a powerful antidote to loneliness. They can also keep seniors safe during every variety of health crisis, including pandemics. If you are stuck at home alone now, or worried about someone who is, now might be the time to consider your post-pandemic plan. Every senior deserves an exceptional retirement. A sudden crisis encourages us all to think critically about how to make life better for the seniors who have already given so much to shape the lives we lead today.
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