By Deborah Schwartz, LCSW-C
The silence during the beginning weeks of lockdown was serene, frightening, and isolating. The initial madness of running to the store to get essentials and whatever we thought would help make this unknown time easier was now over. We sat in wait, unsure of what was next.
My thoughts led me to my older adult therapy clients – some of whom I’d been seeing for years, others who had just gotten started. For the former, I knew their pain, I had ideas of how to guide them through obstacles based on their individual needs, I was confident we would get through this together as best we could. For the latter, we were still meeting each other; I was still learning who they were, what they needed, how they coped with challenges, and how I could help.
Regardless, I worried about them outside of therapy. Who was checking in on them? How were they maintaining contact with family and friends? Who was shopping for them? Would their meal delivery services stop providing support? How were they going to manage on their own? What did they need?
Amid it all, our therapy sessions continued by telephone, FaceTime and Zoom. Since the risks were higher for them because of their age and pre-existing health conditions, they listened to their doctors and stayed in place. They were remarkably calm, wise, and resilient. Many began to use their cell phones other than keeping it on hand just for an emergency – connecting virtually with friends, family, and their medical professionals.
A surprise of the pandemic is how well many older adults have adapted to the restrictions and confinement. According to the Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging, this is considered “Crisis Competence.” Research scientist, Louise Hawkley says, “This isn’t their first show. They’ve been through things already. They know how to handle stress. This is something we can learn from them — that there is survival.”
A 72-year-old woman that I work with said, “the more informed and educated I am about COVID, the more in control I feel.” She explained that she doesn’t spend too much time browsing the internet or watching the news because that is overwhelming. That’s what all the experts have said all along!
Just because older adults have coped better than expected doesn’t mean that they aren’t feeling the loneliness and stress like everyone else. But we are better able to regulate emotions and manage stress as we advance through later life building and developing different resources over the course of time.
Here are a few coping skills and tips that older adults (many of whom are my clients) recommend:
- Try new things. Many older adults learned to Zoom, began knitting, and, finally able to afford a computer or tablet thanks to their stimulus money began to connect with family, find old friends, and even do their banking.
- Maintain a daily schedule. Set up a daily/weekly schedule of exercising, eating a healthy diet, engaging in prayer, doing household chores, and enjoying hobbies. Maintaining a routine helps to provide a sense of security and predictability, helps to reduce stress and anxiety, and improves self -esteem.
- Practice mindfulness. Learning to be present, grateful for what you have, and looking at the positive in a difficult situation is important because it provides space between how you respond to a situation that may appear to be a conflict or problem. In that moment, you can ask yourself: ‘how do I want to act?’ and ‘how do I want to live? Being less reactive reduces our stress.
- Access mental health services and support. While tips and coping skills may be helpful to many most of the time, we may get stuck or need more support. Reach out to your primary care provider, health insurance, and community mental health agency for help.
Over the past year, I have listened to several older adults share stories of finding the kindness and goodness in others. From the Uber driver who waited for an 89-year-old man in his car until he came out of the doctor’s office and a retired schoolteacher giving music lessons via Zoom to an active and bored 8-year-old boy stuck at home. As a holocaust survivor summed it up, “Horrible stuff happens and people rebound from it.”
Deborah Schwartz is a Clinical Therapist at Jewish Community Services
JCS is a comprehensive human services organization providing a broad range of services that meet the diverse, multi-dimensional needs of individuals and families throughout Central Maryland. To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or call 410-466-9200.