effects of covid-19 on the elderly
COVID-19, commonly referred to as Coronavirus, is a highly contagious respiratory disease which has spread across the world throughout 2020. While mild symptoms are common, some progress to acute respiratory distress, requiring the use of a respirator and sometimes leading to death.
The elderly and people with existing respiratory conditions are considered high-risk for developing these extreme symptoms of Coronavirus. This has led governments to instruct citizens to shelter in place and businesses and schools to convert to online-only across the world. Facial masks are required to prevent the spread of the disease, and social distancing of 6 feet or more between people is encouraged when possible.
Long Term Mental Effects of Isolation on the Elderly
Because of their heightened risk to the virus, elderly people have self-isolated at higher levels than the rest of the population. Unfortunately, elders are also more likely than the general population to receive the majority of their social contact outside of the home at places like community centers or places of worship. Combined with limited access or understanding of technology that has allowed many to continue to stay in contact, elders are particularly vulnerable to the effects of isolation.
Social isolation has shown correlation with cognitive impairment. Cognitive aging, the process where declining cognitive function is explained by healthy aging, may be accelerated by high levels of isolation for elderly people.
This has been difficult to measure in the past because of the loose definition of “social isolation”, as there are many categories which factor in to that broad term. Some studies in the past have, for example, described highly isolated individuals as those who live alone, are unmarried, and have low levels of social support. Of these, only low social support is directly linked to isolation. Unmarried people or those who live alone are not necessarily isolated. Despite disagreements over these details in past studies, all factors of social isolation are increased in the elderly population because of social distancing during the pandemic.
Many cognitive problems such as irritability can make panic during this time worse, preventing elderly people from following the correct procedures surrounding hygiene and social distancing to prevent them from contracting the disease.
Impact on Mental Disorders
Global crises in and of themselves are responsible for significant psychological impact. An unprecedented global pandemic, the scale of which has not been seen in over 100 years, can directly cause many conditions including panic, anxiety, increased depression, and insomnia. One of the biggest contributors to these conditions in this particular global crisis has been misinformation and uncertainty surrounding the nature of the disease, both of which have been increasingly spread throughout the news and social media. This causes an increase in mass hysteria to which the elderly are particularly vulnerable.
One published paper thus far has focused on elderly mental health as a result of COVID-19, finding that isolation is a “public health concern” which must be taken seriously because of the vulnerability of this population. The severity of social distancing in order to prevent elders from contracting the disease, especially in elder care facilities, increases the risk of anxiety disorders and suicide.
Other Mental Effects
Most elderly people are not familiar with modern technology like smart phones or the Internet, where much of the population has received news and guidelines regarding the pandemic. This may make it hard for them to understand the importance of various measures during the pandemic, potentially increasing their vulnerability to exacerbating existing mental conditions. Additionally, there is an excessive amount of information about the pandemic on traditional news media like newspapers and television. This could cause an “information overload” in elders, increasing paranoia and mistrust of healthcare.