How Senior Living Facilities Can Support Resident Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Susan London, LMSW, director of social work, Shore View Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

Susan London, LMSW, director of social work, Shore View Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

The COVID-19 pandemic and the social distancing measures it requires have upended life for many residents of senior care facilities. When residents aren’t able to freely interact with other residents or with their family and friends, loneliness, anxiety, and an overall sense of unease are likely to occur. During this time, facilities need to focus on the ways that they can support the mental health of their residents.

Help Residents to Communicate with Family and Friends

While residents might not be able to see family and friends in person, facilitating communication can help to maintain valuable social connections and offer some reassurance. Susan London, LMSW, Director of Social Work at Shore View Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Brooklyn, New York, notes that providing residents with a phone can give them a valuable lifeline during this time. “This is the time where residents can connect with their grandkids, their family, and even their friends from high school,” explains London.

Staff can also help residents to Facetime with their families. “I’ve found this is the number one most important, useful, and stress-relieving aspect for many families,” says London. “They feel better, the resident feels better, and they’re able to see their loved ones.”

Staff can also encourage families and residents to send snail mail. “This is a lost art now, but it was prominent during the years when our seniors were younger and relied on this method of communication. Receiving a special package as a means of keeping in touch with loved ones can be very meaningful during difficult times,” says London.

Equip Residents with Coping Mechanisms and Activities

Facilities can develop and encourage activities that help residents to cope with their stress during this time, too. London advocates for breathing exercises (for patients without respiratory issues), where residents take a deep breath, hold it, and think of something positive.

Distraction also plays an important role in managing stress. “This could be a book, a newspaper, an art project, or a deck of cards,” notes London. “These activities can take residents’ mind off of what’s going on.”

London encourages staff to work with residents to create a bucket list. “This may seem silly to some, particularly those who are elderly and feel they “lived their lives already,” but it achieves a purpose different from – and perhaps greater than – goal setting.” This exercise provides distraction, but it also creates hope. “It allows the resident to feel like there is something more to look forward to, a bright light waiting for them at the end of the tunnel, and this can bring forth renewed energy while helping to fill their days with positive thoughts instead of isolating ones.”

Find Ways to Make Mental Health Professionals Available

While facilities and staff can offer some reassurance and support with the above techniques, it’s also so important to get mental health professionals involved, too. London recommends that facilities have a psychologist or psychiatrist on site as much as possible, but there are challenges with this during this time, too. If that one mental health professional gets sick or cannot come into the facility, it can disrupt the continuity of care.

With the challenges of the pandemic, there’s an increased need for telehealth services. “I’d love to see a telehealth opportunity for psychology,” says London. “If a facility has the opportunity to put a psychologist or licensed social worker on the line with residents, I think it would make an immense difference in terms of mental health support.”

Train Staff to Recognize Signs of Depression and Anxiety

Even when facilities take an active role in supporting resident mental health, some residents may experience significant depression and anxiety and need additional professional help during this time.

London explains that while many people think depression just means sadness, there are other elements and symptoms that staff need to be able to recognize:

  • Isolation
  • Lack of appetite
  • Lack of quality sleep
  • Moving differently
  • Loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed

“If staff can look out for and pick up on these subtle cues, that will help staff know what to do, whether it’s to look into psychiatry, to bring in a social worker, or to change that resident’s care plan,” says London.

The current COVID-19 situation creates an incredible amount of stress for families, staff, and residents. By providing residents with multiple types of support, facilities can prioritize and monitor their mental health during this difficult time.

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