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How to Balance Mental Health and Safety in a Pandemic

How to Balance Mental Health and Safety in a Pandemic

COVID-19 is circulating for its fourth winter season, and the virus is still considered a public health emergency. What’s different from our first pandemic winter, though, is that we understand that the pandemic impacts mental health as well as physical health.

That’s powerful knowledge for life enrichment directors, who know that winter programming must offer opportunities for engagement even if in-person gathering is temporarily unsafe. Here, we’ll do a quick review of how too much time alone can impact residents’ well being and offer some tips on how to ensure residents have opportunities to gather all winter long.

Social Distancing and Loneliness: What You Need to Know

When cold-weather diseases (from COVID to the flu to RSV) circulate, social distancing has become a go-to safety protocol in senior living communities. And for good reason: some residents are uniquely susceptible to these viruses, and social distancing effectively reduces transmission.

But research has found that social distancing, especially in senior living settings, can also lead to loneliness. Loneliness affects older adults more than the general population, and its health consequences are real.

One researcher described loneliness as “a fertilizer for other diseases,” because it can physically alter the body. Loneliness can…

  • Accelerate plaque buildup in arteries.
  • Encourage cancer cells to grow and spread.
  • Increase inflammation in the brain, which can lead to cognitive diseases.
  • Weaken immune cells, increasing risk for infection.

As if that weren’t bad enough, loneliness can also impact mental health. Research has linked loneliness with anxiety, anger, emotional instability, and depression. Anxiety and depression are more common among older adults who live alone, which is exactly what can happen in a senior living community that has shut down communal programming.

Now for some good news: first, being alone doesn’t necessarily mean a person feels lonely. The key is ensuring that your residents have access to their community and are getting meaningful interaction with other people – something communities are much better prepared to do this year than we were when we first heard of COVID.

5 Programming Ideas That Boost Mental Wellness

Senior living communities are uniquely positioned to ensure that residents avoid loneliness (and its attendant health impacts). Life enrichment and activity directors are, of course, essential to these efforts. Here are five ways to leverage activity programming to protect residents’ mental wellness:

  1. Connect residents to nature. Organize a nature walk, birdwatching activity, trip to the local conservatory (particularly for those in the chilliest climates), or any outing that gets residents into the great outdoors. For one thing, being outside makes it safer to be together. For another, connectedness to nature has been shown to boost mental wellness by increasing recovery from stress, providing a sense of purpose, and more.
  2. Facilitate a pet day. Work with a local animal organization to regularly bring pets to your residents, or the other way around. Research shows that pets can improve mood, soothe anxiety, and reduce feelings of depression, simply by being in the room. If it’s possible, you may connect residents with fostering programs, which are always in need of volunteers. There are even programs that help match older adults with pets in need.
  3. Organize family days. Help your residents stay connected with the people they love most. Studies find that, when it comes to staving off loneliness, quality of connections outweighs quantity. Big group activities may be off the table, but smaller gatherings of family members is often a safer option. You may also choose to circulate information to family members, emphasizing how important it is to continue reaching out to their loved ones. For example, small acts of kindness and involving family members in decisions help residents feel connected and included.
  4. Enhance and promote wisdom. Research shows that wisdom may be a powerful antidote to poor mental health. So-called wisdom interventions include those that promote emotional regulation, self-reflection and empathy, compassion, social advising, and spirituality. In your community, this may take the form of meditation classes, support groups, religious activities, group journaling sessions, and more.
  5. Help residents practice compassion. Studies suggest that compassion is the most impactful aspect of wisdom. This includes compassion toward others and compassion for the self. Offer activities that promote both. This may involve connecting residents to charities or volunteer opportunities, so they can practice compassion outside of the community. Or you may offer compassion training or compassion-based therapies to help promote self-compassion among residents.

Senior Living Technology Helps Balance Physical and Mental Health

Protecting residents’ physical and mental health during a pandemic is critical. And while reports of loneliness among older populations have increased in recent years, data has also shown that older adults tend to be more resilient than younger counterparts.

Senior living communities can enhance that resilience by offering programming that promotes mental wellness. Icon’s senior living technology can help facilitate those activities.

For example, a community engagement platform allows residents to easily browse and sign up for events and activities. And a family engagement platform helps keep family members informed about residents’ physical and mental health, as well as the safety protocols your community has developed to combat winter illnesses of all kinds.

To learn more about these technologies and others,

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