Mental toughness during the pandemic: Keeping seniors’ spirits up

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By: Alyson Gourley-Cramer

Growing up in a large family in Newfoundland, Peter was rarely alone. His sense of humour and wit are sharp and intact after 87 years, and he loves a good game of cards. He has five adult children, most of whom live close by in British Columbia, and all whom have stayed a very big part of his life. He prides himself on his ability to strike up a conversation anywhere, making people feel welcome in the neighbourhood and brightening up their day.

Peter of Newfoundland sitting with a dog.Things changed for Peter when he - like all British Columbians - was required to self-isolate due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Being completely alone at home for an extended period of time, with no clear sense of when the restrictions would be lifted, made a real impact on Peter’s health, both physical and mental. The recent death of his cat left him living alone, so to compensate, online interactions with extended family increased.

His daughter, Phyllis, explains: “What’s interesting is that we connected with dad online more over the weeks that he was self-isolating than we typically did! We had card games on Zoom, calls with family members from across the country, local calls with grandchildren, and food, special mail and baking deliveries.  But what we came to realize was that the quality of these connections just wasn’t the same.”
“What we were seeing in those one-hour calls did not reflect my father’s reality”

In reality, after five weeks of complete isolation in his own home, Peter was beginning to have memory issues. He relied on the television schedule to help with the time, and lost track of days. Over time, his feelings of despair increased.

“Loneliness is a strange thing. It can treat you horribly,” he shares. “I’ve been through some awful things in my life, but nothing like this. It affected my mind, my thoughts, my fears. I began thinking, ‘Of all of my time left on this earth, do I really want to spend it alone?’”

After a concerning accident, Peter reached out, and Phyllis and her husband James welcomed him to live with them. The toll on her father’s physical and mental well-being were alarming. 

“I couldn’t believe his appearance, and his mental state - it was such a dramatic shift from this lively and vibrant person I knew as my father,” says Phyllis.

It’s now been three weeks, but within three days of a routine: regular walks around the block, consistent and healthy meals, helping with chores, and being surrounded by Phyllis, James and the family dog, Peter describes, “I’m me again.”

Phyllis and her siblings have since worked together on a plan to ensure that their dad has more of his usual routine as he transitions back to living in his apartment. This will be especially important as restrictions are slowly relaxed and people begin expanding their social bubbles. Interpersonal contact will be paramount to this plan.

“I’ll be living at home again,” says Peter, “but I’ll able to drive around with my daughter on errands, sit on the beach with my grandchildren, have a coffee again with my friends, and live my present, all while understanding that there are still concerns for health that need to be had.”
If he begins to experience a decline in his mental health again, Peter feels, “I’ll be more attuned to what’s going on inside.”
Phyllis would encourage adult children like herself to have discussions with their parents about their mental health and well-being during this pandemic. It can be difficult conversation, but together families can design a plan that supports everyone with the transition of relaxing restrictions, while minimizing the ongoing risk of COVID-19.

“We’re not experts in this, but as a family, it helped us recognize some key factors in supporting both physical and mental health, especially as we begin to move into a recovery stage.”

With added mobility, autonomy and expanding social circles comes some risk, but many more benefits, carefully and slowly replacing online interactions with invaluable interpersonal connections, from family, friends, and the neighbourhood people who brighten every day.  

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