How can those 65+ avoid wild emotional fluctuations in trying times?

While a positive outlook from the government may make us feel hopeful, a negative report from a medical expert can bring us down.

Moods can move from optimistic and hopeful to feelings of sadness or depression. (photo credit: TNS)
Moods can move from optimistic and hopeful to feelings of sadness or depression.
(photo credit: TNS)
As we all know, we are all living in a time of uncertainty. Both newspapers stories and medical experts offer us differing information about COVID-19. Will the number of infections continue to climb? Will there be a vaccine?
While a positive outlook from the government may make us feel hopeful, a negative report from a medical expert can bring us down. Sometimes, it feels like we are riding on a roller coaster of emotions. Moods can move from optimistic and hopeful to feelings of sadness or depression.
Not only do I see expressions of these mood shifts in my private practice, but I also hear similar emotions expressed by friends and family.
The experts say that the high-risk population are those with preexisting medical disorders like diabetes, heart disease and chronic kidney disease, LDL (bad) cholesterol in the blood, other autoimmune disorders, and those over 65. In fact, all people over 65, regardless of whether they have the medical conditions mentioned above, are part of the high-risk group.
While I appreciate the message that older people need to be particularly careful or risk serious consequences, I am deeply concerned about describing all people over 65 as a homogeneous high-risk group. I believe that the categorization of this entire age group as high-risk has had a negative emotional impact on older people who are indeed healthy and, until COVID-19, perceived themselves as in good shape.
I address this problem below and try to make some sense of how people over 65 should live their lives during the COVID-19 pandemic.
SARAH AND Benzie are a couple in their late 60s. They have three married children and grandkids. Both are in excellent health, have always worked out, and do not smoke.
During the pandemic lockdown, everyone, young and old, were socially restricted. Like most grandparents, Sarah and Benzie spent their Passover Seder alone and did not see their children and grandchildren. Although it was a painful period, they did feel safe, and felt good that they were being careful about following the government’s directives.
Benzie called me up for some online counseling. He was quite worried about Sarah, who had become very depressed. She was having trouble sleeping, would cry frequently, and had no energy. I began online sessions with Sarah to help her understand the impact of the isolation from her family and support her through a tough period.
Toward the end of the lockdown, I suggested that she invite her daughter and son-in-law (without grandchildren) to her home for a socially distanced visit. The simple suggestion brought a smile to Sarah’s face. Contact with her family was something she could look forward to.
After the lockdown ended, Sarah began to visit her kids and grandkids, following all precautions, wearing a mask and distancing.
The problem was that Benzie was not ready to have the grandchildren come for a visit to their home. He rarely left the house and did his exercise routine at home for fear of the virus killing him. Sarah told me that she does not know what to do, but feels stuck.
Sarah and Benzie are not that different from many people of this age group and perhaps others who may be much younger. People are confused and do not know what to do about social contacts, whom to visit and where to go. What we do know is that for many, there is an emotional price paid for overly isolating yourself from loved ones. Sarah was able to overcome her isolation by talking about her feelings and reengaging with her family members. Both the planning for the visit and the visit itself helped lift her depression. Benzie has become agoraphobic, isolated, and is afraid to leave his home.
Prof. Yoram Maarivi, head of rehabilitation and geriatric rehabilitation at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem argues that social isolation is a greater threat than the virus itself to the elderly who do not have underlying medical conditions.
He says that people over 65 are not one monolithic group and that age is not a suitable criterion for defining who is part of the high-risk grouping. He argues that the aging process is very individual. Therefore, while it is important to follow recommended guidelines like masking, social distancing and washing hands for older adults like everyone else, those over 65 who are in good health do not have to live in such a state of fear, nor should they isolate themselves too harshly and avoid living their lives (Globes, April 21, 2020).
The same article reports about an analysis published in 2015 for the Association of Psychological Science that found that social isolation in older people led to an increase in mortality, aggravated heart disease, and becoming less active, which can decrease overall health. Maaravi is concerned that COVID-19 is placing an unfair emotional burden that can negatively affect health in over-65 healthy adults.
In summary, people over 65 who are generally healthy, like Benzie and Sarah, need to find the correct balance in how they want to live their lives. This is, of course, a very personalized process. No one can tell you that you are wrong or right.
However, do so intelligently, with your emotions in mind. Use some basic common sense. Stay healthy.
The writer is a marital, child and adult cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist with offices in Jerusalem and Ra’anana.,