BOISE — Social worker Tiffany Stees, who has worked with seniors throughout the coronavirus pandemic, said she is witnessing “an impending mental health crisis.”
At the residential care center where she works, Orchards of Cascadia in Nampa, Stees has observed how the pandemic has amplified isolation and loneliness among older adults. Others who work with seniors have seen a concurrent blow to the mental health of people isolating at home. But after eight plus months of virus spread, it’s what caregivers and volunteers don’t see that sometimes worries them most.
With in-person events canceled, some seniors resist using technology to stay connected to their support systems, and others don’t have the resources or the tech literacy to participate in things like video calls, AARP Idaho Director of Outreach Cathy McDougall said. That’s severed the connection between volunteers and some of the seniors they work with.
“I just don’t know what’s going on with them,” she said. “We’re not hearing from people. They’re just gone.”
Though mental health was “a major topic of discussion” at a recent Kuna Senior Center meeting, members who don’t attend in-person events have dropped off some organizers’ radar, Senior Center board member Guy DiTorrice said.
“We have seniors who haven’t interacted with people outside family gatherings since March,” he said.
To counteract the communication gap, McDougall’s team, along with local senior centers, are calling clients they’re concerned about.
The Southwest Idaho Area Agency on Aging handles a wide range of calls from seniors and adult protective services reporters. They’ve noticed an uptick in calls, especially as the holidays near, but they can’t quantify how much the situation has worsened.
National research shows rates of anxiety and depression have increased in adults of all ages during the pandemic. In August, one in four adults ages 65 and older reported anxiety or depression — up from one in 10 in 2018, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“As we’ve been going along … I’ve heard of people experiencing the residual effects of being isolated — things like depression, anxiety and suicide,” said agency director Raul Enriquez.
Stees emphasized that, although not everyone experiences symptoms of mental illness, the pandemic is impacting everyone, especially those who are isolated.
Some seniors have found ways to stay connected, even as in-person events continue to be canceled. Nampa resident Dana Miller, 73, has weathered isolation with her husband Warren, 75, by video calling friends, spending time with her English springer spaniel, Pete, and reading over FaceTime to her grandkids Addison and August, who live in Washington. Miller’s grandchildren didn’t visit for Thanksgiving this year; she hasn’t seen them since December.
“It’s hard for those of us who are well confined and (are) older,” she said. “We’re in that senior citizen community who are more at risk.”
Miller is thankful she’s been able to spend time in McCall, do things outside and connect with her grandchildren. She said most of her friends have remained generally positive throughout the pandemic, but “it’s been hard for some of them, especially those who have not gotten out much at all.”
Stees said a crucial way people can help seniors forced to isolate is by wearing masks so new case numbers go down, allowing older adults to safely leave their homes once again.
“They’ve dedicated their whole lives to society,” she said. “They’ve done a great job of living, and I’d like to keep it that way for as long as possible.”