Aging Parents’Loneliness: The Other Pandemic

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There is one thing about the current pandemic about which there is no controversy—seniors are most vulnerable. With every warning and every description of preventive measures telling seniors to self-isolate, stay home, and avoid others, there is an inevitable consequence: loneliness. Loneliness among elders was problematic before Covid-19. Now it is worse. And lip service is paid to what we can do about it. Not enough attention is given to measures to address this hidden pandemic among isolated seniors. As a former public health nurse myself, I have witnessed aging folks’ loneliness firsthand and on a broad scale. Thousands of home visits to hundreds of elders showed me the truth: too many aging adults even back then did not have enough social interactions to maintain optimum mental health. Sometimes my weekly visit to a client was the only in-person contact the elder had all week long! It was heartbreaking.

Maybe your own aging parents or other loved ones are stuck at home, stuck in their rooms at a seniors’ home or cut off from all their usual activities. Senior centers in many communities, which generally offer opportunities to eat together, learn together, play games or participate in groups are now closed. The risk of exposing our vulnerable loved ones to others, including staff and volunteers in these centers is too great. Covid-19 is too highly contagious.

And what can we do to help aging parents, other than making calls or very carefully restricted visits to them at home? Too often visiting is its own risk and we would not want to take that chance except for essentials such as groceries. Loneliness can be very detrimental to health. Isolation is associated with bad health outcomes even though it may be required be to save elders’ lives. We can do better than just leaving them alone when additional support is possible.

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Psychological support from a professional can be of great help. But if one’s aging parents have never considered such a thing, how could you persuade them it may be a way to reduce loneliness? Talking to some doctor? “No way” is a usual response.

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The suggestion of mental health help is too often ignored. Seniors may be much more set against the idea of talking to a therapist than a younger person might be. Stigma about mental health help was strong in our aging parents’ generation. “That’s for crazy people” they might say and “I’m not crazy”. But some things have changed in this pandemic. Because in-person visits to healthcare providers are suspended or limited in many places, insurers are forced to pay for services delivered electronically that they refused to pay for previously. Telemedicine has new prominence.

Here’s an example of how thing have changed: My husband, Dr. Mikol Davis has been a psychologist for decades, delivering in-person care for clients in his office. He does see some clients whose visits are paid for by Medicare. Prior to Covid-19, Medicare was very resistant to covering a visit by telemedicine, which means on the computer. Now, it is no problem for a therapist to bill Medicare and get paid for doing so in seeing a Medicare eligible client. This is a pandemic-driven evolution.

In discussing the pros and cons of telemedicine with him, I learned that some people find it less intimidating to speak to a therapist on the screen rather than in person. There are several reasons for this.

First, territory. It is generally more comfortable for anyone to see a professional on one’s own turf, in the privacy of one’s own home. No one has to go to another’s territory for a visit and this gives a client a better sense of control.

Next, it is completely private. For those who have thoughts that seeing a mental health provider is shameful, or somehow embarrassing, no one will see them going into nor out of a provider’s office. There is no getting dressed, no driving, no finding one’s way, no waiting room.

Finally, the personal contact is not limited by having to stay six feet apart nor wear a mask. Facial expression as part of communication is essential for both therapist and client. Screen talk is completely safe.

Not everyone needs professional mental health help but a lot of aging parents could benefit from kind, attentive support from a trustworthy source. It is well established in psychology that people can cope better with traumatic events by talking through the experience with a skilled person. My own clients at AgingParents.com, often the adult children, are saying how sad they are that they can’t seem to do much about how lonely and depressed their loved ones are these days. I offer them the suggestion to broach the subject of getting help with their aging parents. Adult children can do a search for a therapist who offers telemedicine visits and encourage aging parents to make that call and set up an appointment. That’s a positive step.

In the meantime, we are all facing feelings of loss, isolation and disruption that seem to have no clear end in sight. It’s not just our aging parents! Telemedicine for emotional support is available for everyone who can use a computer or cell phone.

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