The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everyone’s lives in innumerable ways. However, for many seniors, it has come at a highly vulnerable point in their life. Seniors are already more susceptible to contagious disease because of decreased immunity and other age-related health issues. However, add social isolation and anxiety about the health of friends and family, and you have an assumption that seniors would become increasingly depressed. In fact, studies show that the older population has been able to withstand the effects of COVID on their mental health much more than younger people. For example, in August 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a survey noting that the 933 participants aged 65 years or older reported significantly lower percentages of an anxiety disorder (6.2%), depressive disorder (5.8%), or trauma- or stress-related disorder (TSRD) (9.2%) than participants in younger age groups. According to the report, of the 731 participants aged 18 through 24 years, 49.1% reported anxiety disorder; 52.3%, depressive disorder; and 46%, TSRD. Of the 1911 participants aged 25 through 44 years, 35.3% reported anxiety disorder; 32.5%, depressive disorder; and 36% for TSRD. Of the 895 participants aged 45 through 64 years, 16.1% said anxiety disorder, 14.4% had depressive disorder, and 17.2% had TSRD. Compared with other age groups, older adults also reported lower rates of new or increased substance use and suicidal ideation in the preceding 30 days, with rates of 3% and 2%, respectively.
As October is National Depression and Awareness month, FirstLantic.com wants to draw attention to the severity of the problem for the population as a whole and understand more about how seniors have been more resilient in the face of the pandemic.
Q. Dr. Beach, what behavioral changes could indicate depression or anxiety?
A. The signs can be varied and depend on the individual, so it’s essential to recognize any drastic changes in behavior. However, some general symptoms include talking about feeling hopeless or guilty and losing interest in favorite activities. Also, look for changes in sleep patterns or eating habits, talk about suicide, death, or depression, pulling away from friends or family, and engaging in risk-taking behaviors.
Q. Why do you think the pandemic has increased depressive thoughts more in other age groups than seniors?
A. We are not sure that we fully understand this yet as the data is relatively recent. However, there are a few hypotheses based on research. The first is that proactive preventive measures such as avoiding people who cough, unnecessary travel, and the use of public transportation or public places has been associated with lower COVID-related anxiety among older adults. Since many are retired and could avoid unnecessary trips outside the home, this may have increased their control over other age groups. And while everyone's social interaction was limited, it seems that seniors felt that the quality rather than the number of social connections mattered the most. As long as they could still see some close friends and family, they were more content than younger groups who missed a much larger social circle.
An additional conclusion drawn from the research is that the wisdom that one often gains with age can play a big part. The ability to be empathetic, emotionally aware, and regulated and to be able to self-reflect is often greater in older adults than in younger people. Studies show a significant inverse correlation between loneliness and wisdom. Cross-sectional studies show higher levels of wisdom, especially the compassion component, lead to less loneliness and an overall greater sense of well-being.
Q. Is there a correlation between drinking and depression or anxiety?
A. Suicide, addiction, and depression have a very close and interconnected relationship, and more than 90% of people who commit suicide suffer from depression, have a substance abuse disorder, or both. It's not unusual for someone dealing with depression to turn towards drugs or alcohol to numb the pain. However, substance abuse increases the severity and duration of depression, so it's a vicious cycle. And many substances impair judgment, so someone that normally would not act on suicidal thoughts may be more emboldened because of their lack of clarity while on alcohol or drugs. That’s why the studies that showed very little increase in alcohol consumption by seniors were so eye-opening. As younger groups tried dulling their feelings with alcohol and drugs, it may have had just the opposite effect on their psyche.
Q. Do you think there are additional reasons why older groups may be showing more resilience?
A. Well, this is more of my personal opinion, but I think that part of it may have to do with having lived a long life filled with many ups and downs. For many young people, this is the worst situation that they have experienced in their lifetimes. Seniors have gone through seeing political and social upheaval, economic booms, and busts and perhaps the loss of close friends and family. The oldest of our population may have had parents who experienced the after-effects of the Great Depression, or they know friends and family that lived through WWII. The awareness of and direct exposure to people that lived through these catastrophic events may have helped them deal with this adversity with the knowledge that “this too shall pass."
Q. Dr. Beach, what can they do if someone is concerned about their mental health or about someone they know?
A. First of all, don’t wait. If you're not feeling like yourself, get help. If you are worried about someone else, talk to them right away and practice prevention, ensuring that guns or pills are safely secured. Just because seniors as a whole have weathered the effects of COVID better than other age groups, it doesn't mean that they aren't some people that have been affected by this intensely and profoundly and may need help. Take advantage of the many resources that are available where advice is available such as:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 or text CONNECT to 741741. You also can contact them through their website.
National Coalition for Mental Health and Aging: For more information, go to their website.
Behavioral Health – Eldercare Locator: Go to their website by clicking here.
You can also call 911 for immediate help or the new number that the FCC established, 988, a nationwide, 3-digit phone number for Americans in crisis to connect with suicide prevention and mental health crisis counselors.
Inquire about the counseling services that your college offers.
The bottom line is that depression is treatable. Don’t wait or be afraid to ask for help because many professionals and resources can advise you or your loved one on what to do.
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