How you can help seniors' mental health as we approach the holidays

Posted at 6:52 AM, Nov 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-24 06:52:46-05

Everyone one of us has suffered loss during the pandemic. For some of us, it has been a loss of income, but for many, it's a loss of contact and connection with our loved ones.

Related: Full coverage of The Rebound Detroit's Managing Mental Health day

The pain from that loss will be felt sharply during the holidays for seniors who are shut-in because of the virus.

Richard Stewart is still grieving the loss of his wife, Luona, who died three years ago from complications of ALS. The thought of spending the holidays without her seemed to be too much.

Related: The Rebound Detroit: List of Michigan resources to help you manage your mental health

The best friends were married for 33 years, but now, Richard lives alone and says the grief he battles every day and the intense isolation from the coronavirus is a lot to bear.

"This is totally different," he said. "It's, it's quiet lonely."

Related: Kids, teens could be feeling pandemic-related stress. Here's how parents can help

Richard's daughter is a healthcare worker. She and his granddaughter live next door, but Richard has COPD. That and other preexisting conditions means their contact is limited.

"She definitely doesn't want to expose me. As you can tell, I'm not a little guy," he said.

Managing Mental Health phone line

Therapist Kelly Houseman says Richard's feelings are too common among older adults isolated by efforts to stay safe. If unchecked, it can lead to anxiety and depression.

"The mental health of seniors is absolutely taking a toll right now, many times the holiday season and in-person gatherings are what get people through a long cold winter," she said.

Houseman says using video conferencing to gather on days like Thanksgiving can help pierce the isolation and loneliness.

She also said to consider using handwritten notes of love through the mail.

"Handwritten cards, craft projects from kids, pictures in the mail, that can something so small, like that can certainly brightness seniors day," she said.

Seniors can practice self care by looking for a community online that could last beyond the pandemic, like exercise classes and meditation groups.

They can also do things like cooking for others, and dropping with contact-free delivery is a way to show love this Thanksgiving. To make it through the holidays, Richard is trying something new. He's put up a Christmas tree for the first time.

But it was just after Christmas when Richard and Luona went on their first date, when he proposed, and when she said yes. This year, like so many others, he'll try to put on a brave face.

"You know the old expression fake it till you make it. I keep smiling and convince them. I'm happy until they walk out the door and smile disappears," he said.

Richard is getting help dealing with the emotions hes feeling right now, and seeking help is something more seniors are being encouraged to do.

There are self-assessment quizzes that can help you decide it's time to get help, or, if you notice a change in eating habits, sleeping patters, or a grim outlook on the future.

Since we're not spending as much time with seniors in our lives, we have to make an effort to see their emotional well-being by asking about those same patterns.