How the pandemic affected the mental health of the elderly


While the pandemic caused by COVID-19 is primarily physical in nature, it also contains the “germ of a major mental health crisis that will erupt if action is not taken.”

This warned the World Health Organization (WHO) at the beginning of 2020. Currently, different surveys and surveys highlighted the serious impact that this problem had on older adults. To learn more about this situation, HolaDoctor spoke with Melisa Silvia Gambini, a psychologist, specialized in cognitive rehabilitation therapies, who works with older people.

Mental health, according to the WHO, is a state of well-being in which the person is capable of:

  • Coping with life’s many stressors.
  • Unleash your full potential.
  • To function productively and fruitfully.
  • Contribute to your community.

Taking care of mental health is very important, because it influences the way we interact, learn, work, suffer or are happy.

Due to the unprecedented challenges that were generated in the last year, experts point out that mental health care will be critical in the response of countries to COVID-19 and in recovering from the pandemic.

The pandemic and mental health

Mental problems can be positioned on a continuum, ranging from moderate and limited distress to severe distress. According to a publication by The Lancet Commission on Global Mental Health and Sustainable Development, the COVID-19 pandemic influenced people’s position on that continuum.

According to the authors, even people who responded well to mental health problems in the past are now less able to cope with them due to the multiple stressors generated by the pandemic.

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  • How loneliness affects the health of the elderly

Melisa Silvia Gambini personally verified this aspect after having accompanied patients with different pre-existing diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, or vascular dementia, as well as people without pre-existing diseases during the pandemic.

“In people with greater cognitive impairment, behavioral disorders, sleep problems, irritability, abrupt mood swings, hallucinations, and tendencies to withdraw, neglect, not eat, and not dress were seen,” he told HolaDoctor.

There were also short-term memory failures, attention problems, difficulty in processing information or understanding, and abandonment of their treatments due to difficulty or inability to leave.

“In the pictures with cognitive impairment it was seen that the neurological sequences had advanced. Among those who did not have a neurological condition, psychiatric symptoms were more noticeable. Depression, fear that something will happen to a family member or overprotection of caring for the other ”, which in many cases made people neglect themselves.

Another aspect that influenced the mental health of patients during the pandemic was the “refuge” in the media. According to Gambini, this generated a lot of sadness, fear and insecurity. On the other hand, “in people who are younger or have a better relationship with technologies and social networks, the impact was less.”

“I notice that older adults have isolated themselves a lot, they are afraid to go out, to bond with their own children. That is terrible, because even when the child wants to reach out or help, they isolate themselves even more, cancel themselves, and their pattern of interests is reduced. This, logically, generates greater cognitive repercussions ”.

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According to the University of Michigan National Survey on Healthy Aging, released in January 2021 (nearly a year after the pandemic began):

  • Two out of three adults ages 50 to 80 (65%) rated their mental health as excellent or very good, 27% as good, and 8% as fair or poor.
  • Few older adults (5%) said their overall mental health was better compared to before the pandemic, and 18% said it was worse.
  • Reporting worse mental health since the pandemic began was more common among women, those aged 50 to 64, those with higher education, and those who rated their physical health as fair or poor.
  • About one in five older adults (19%) rated their overall mental health as better compared to 20 years ago, 62% rated it the same, and 19% said it was worse.

How to take care of mental health and cognitive ability

To prevent or combat mental health problems derived from the pandemic, it is very important to maintain good cognitive ability. Gambini points out that there are many things that can be done to limit or delay the damage over time to brain function, such as incorporating a healthy lifestyle.

This includes a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes, regular sleep patterns, and frequent physical activity. It is also important to develop intellectual activity.

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According to Gambini, for the latter you do not need pencil and paper or resort to memory workshops as may be commonly believed. There are many daily activities that can be beneficial and cognitively stimulate us:

  • Play cards, for example, with grandchildren.
  • Watch series or movies and be able to tell others what it is about.
  • Work on reminiscence, for example, with photos.
  • Review old recipes.
  • Savor new foods or drinks.
  • “Having fun hobbies, intellectual activities, such as studying something new, or considering new challenges, such as a trip. Anything that involves using the brain for something other than everyday life can help, ”said Gambini.

    Another factor that should not be neglected is that of emotions. Taking care of what affects us emotionally contributes to a healthy brain and cognitive performance. For this, Gambini advises “not to stop going out, always taking all the prevention and hygiene measures, even if it is a walk around the block. Nor lose contact with the outside world, family, friends, or neighbors.

    For the latter, “the youngest have to help the elderly, bringing them closer to new technologies or so that they do not lose connection.”

    Sources consulted: US National Library of Medicine, Mayo Clinic, World Health Organization.

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