Strategies to Help Residents Cope with Loss During the Pandemic

Dr. Zlatin Ivanov, M.D., a New York-based psychiatrist

Coping with loss is never an easy process, but the pandemic has created situations that make dealing with loss even more difficult for senior care facility residents.

Not only are residents increasingly isolated out of safety, but schedule disruptions and the sudden, unexpected deaths caused by COVID-19 make navigating loss particularly challenging. Facilities and caregivers can play an important role in helping to support residents during this time.

Understanding the Emotional Significance of Losses

Seniors may lose friends and family members during the pandemic, and those losses can be sudden and unpredicted. Dr. Zlatin Ivanov, M.D., a New York-based psychiatrist, notes that these unexpected losses have been a new challenge for most people, worldwide.

“This results in emotional challenges, especially for seniors, and even disruption of family function,” notes Ivanov. “It creates challenges to the survivor’s belief systems. New to this experience, I hear stories from some of my patients who didn’t get the chance to say goodbye. They’re dealing with unfinished business with the deceased.”

Supporting Residents Coping with Loss

Facilities can support residents in multiple ways. Ivanov recommends that facilities focus on creating a caring environment. “During this difficult time, it’s important to have the feeling that somebody who isn’t just there for the paycheck really cares for you,” he says.

Focusing on creating a variety of activities can help to keep residents engaged, even during times of grief. An activity schedule gives residents an array of options to choose from. Ivanov suggests providing wellness and exercise activities, including meditation options. “Meditation and exercise aren’t for everyone, but some residents will respond to that very well,” he explains.

Residents may also benefit from a grief support group. “It’s very important for people to share their feelings and thoughts, and when in a group setting, they feel that they aren’t alone in what they’re experiencing,” says Ivanov. “In this setting, residents can build trust and relationships, and they may feel more comfortable in sharing what’s on their mind.”

Facilities may have previously invited grief counselors from the community in to visit. When holding group sessions, a facility should be sure to follow physical distancing requirements for COVID-19 prevention.

It’s particularly important for residents to receive social support during the grieving process. “When we lose somebody, we tend to withdraw from society,” says Ivanov. “Creating new relationships is very important to help us slowly and gradually move on.” A facility can support this valuable social interaction by encouraging residents to participate in activities, whether those are volunteering opportunities, arts and crafts projects, or other activities.

“Staying active can help to distract a resident’s mind from the negative thoughts and sadness that they might experience during this time,” says Ivanov.

Additional Measures and Preparation

Facilities also need to create a prevention plan to help monitor and identify situations where grieving residents may need additional help. Ivanov recommends that a facility regularly ask residents if they are developing feelings of deep hopelessness and depression.

“In general, in grief and bereavement, deep sadness is a normal human reaction when you’ve lost a loved one. We’re not going to challenge people and say that they shouldn’t be grieving. We all have to go through that process, but in a healthy way,” says Ivanov. Within the first three to six months, that deep sadness usually resolves, but in some people, that grief can continue and deepen. In those situations, a resident may need additional and more frequent professional help.

The Role of Family

Families typically provide valuable social support during times of grief, but visitation restrictions mean that family members might not be able to interact with residents in person. Video chats, social media, phone calls, text messages, and emails become more important as a result. “I know that everyone’s extremely busy,” says Ivanov, “but the bottom line is that we need to make time and keep checking in on people. Continue this support until after the pandemic is resolved.”

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