Dubai: As a twenty-something year old, it’s difficult for me to empathise with people over the age of 65. I am not sure how most people that age feel or feel like doing. While researching this story I got in touch with my grandmother, a beautiful woman in her 80s, who is self-isolating alone in her apartment. She doesn’t want anyone visiting her, even her daughters or granddaughters, so that she isn’t risking her health in any way.
“I read novels, do a daily crossword, try to cook and watch a few shows on TV,” she told me over the phone. Great! I thought to myself. That’s three out of four ideas that do not involve the TV.
Okay. Let’s back up for a moment here. Ever since COVID-19 was announced as a worldwide pandemic, senior citizens were asked to stay home in order to stay safe (and alive). The World Health Organisation discovered early on that senior citizens were at higher risk than others if they were infected with the coronavirus.
According to the WHO, over 95 per cent of Coronvirus deaths in Europe occurred in those older than 60 years. More than 50 per cent of all deaths were people aged 80 years or older. So even when movement restrictions were eased, senior citizens are still being encouraged to stay home, avoid gatherings and not move around the city at all.
This is a problem for many of them. They need to walk and move and the weather is making it very difficult for them to get any exercise in. They can’t visit grandkids or any family members unless they live with them. It gets very lonely.
“The spread of COVID-19 and ensuing social distancing guidelines can have profound effects on the mental health of our senior citizens,” Sneha John, a Counselling Psychologist at LifeWorks Holistic Counselling Centre in Dubai told Gulf News. “Being confined within homes for a prolonged period of time can birth loneliness, hopelessness, despondency and anxiety about the future. Many senior citizens may already be isolated by widowhood, living alone and difficulties with mobility. However, the current situation has brought about a complete stand-still to their daily activities outside the home.”
Simple activities such as walking to the grocer or visiting a neighbour can bring a sense of purpose and optimism to their lives. But the loneliness they are experiencing comes in terms of loss to freedom and a structure to their lives. Lacking encouragement from family or friends, those who are lonely may slide into unhealthy habits, she explains.
Loneliness further triggers a series of thoughts within the mind such as ‘I have nothing to look forward to’ or ‘my life is meaningless.’ Such thoughts maintain feelings of loneliness, anxiety and despair within people. Loss of appetite, sleep disturbances and various health related concerns such as low immunity, body weakness, fatigue or cardiovascular diseases could stem from poor emotional well-being.
So how can you tackle your pandemic days as a senior citizen?
Design a perfect routine
According to Sneha, an ideal daily routine would consist of personal care, morning activity, quiet time and social time. Personal care involves taking the time to look after your basic hygiene in the morning by brushing teeth, taking a shower and getting dressed. This would positively affect the way they see themselves and boost their self-confidence.
The next part of the day is then breakfast (elderly are not required to fast during Ramdan) where they can prepare a healthy meal to remain physically fit during this time. A fun element to this would be adding variety to their breakfast option instead of having the same meals every day.
Next comes the morning activity. A morning activity would involve doing simple stretch exercises, gardening, cleaning or organizing the home.
The morning activity would then ideally be followed by quiet time where they can read the newspaper, listen to music or take a stroll in their garden.
Afternoon hours can be spent in doing activities that involve problem solving, thinking and creativity. For example, working on an art project, learning a new course using online streaming classes, read a novel or writing a hand-written note to friends or family.
Evening hours could be dedicated to connecting with family whether they are present locally or internationally. Social connection is an essential component to experience a sense of belonging and feel loved. Family calls can be opportunities for our elderly citizens to share what they have learnt and done during their day. Many families also choose to have dinner with their elderly family members (if time zone permits) via online video sessions. This can give them a sense of fulfilment.
“As a night-time routine, I would recommend elderly citizens to spend the last 30 minutes before going to sleep as a time of reflection from their day where they write down 3 things that they were grateful for and slowly focus their attention towards these things as they fall asleep,” she adds.
Lean on your family if you live with them
You should be able to talk to your family. Even if you feel like they may not always be interested in listening to you, they should give you free reign to reminisce and freely open up about the old days. Allow yourself to complain about what is happening.
“Family members should listen and respond positively. A smile and the sound of your voice can brighten their day,” Sneha said. “Parents can involve children in teaching grandparents to use technology so that they reconnect with their relatives and friends. In many homes, COVID-19 has brought a change in the household routine. Hence, it would be helpful to have elderly family members involved in setting new routines as well as helping out simple household chores.
Encourage them to take up an old hobby that gives them joy, which could also be taught to the rest of your family. To remain happy within a home environment given the current circumstance, elderly members should be made to feel independent and in control of some aspects of their lives. As they continually adjust to new changes that come with aging process, particularly to their physical health, family members should take the effort to assign them age-appropriate tasks so that they feel empowered. These tasks could be giving them the freedom to take their medications with your oversight or even running errands for the family.”
In a nutshell, elderly people thrive in home environments that are filled with hope, where family members encourage each other by focusing on inner strengths and setting positive expectations even during challenging times. In contrast, an overly critical environment can bring about feelings of inadequacy among this population.
Don’t depend on television to fill your time
“Watching TV for a prolonged period, for example, 3-7 hours per day could affect an elderly person’s health remarkably,” Sneha told Gulf News. “TV is considered a sedentary activity that impacts an elderly person’s ability to remember and recall recent information they have read or heard.”
What this means, for example, is being able to recal a story from the daily newspaper. In terms of their mood, extensive TV watching can cause them to constantly feel sad, have mood fluctuations and lethargy. “Their physical health would also be affected due to the lack of activity which could impact walking. A balanced TV routine would be one hour in length. The content watched on TV also makes a huge difference. Watching documentaries or educational material can have positive impacts on their overall well-being. However, immersing in emotionally disturbing content such as those with violence, quarrels, fights and tragedies could do more harm.”
Inject meaning into your life
Human beings thrive when they find purpose or meaning. A key contributor to feelings of loneliness can be a loss of meaning.
“To re-kindle the sense of meaning within your life, the key would be to slowly build your inventory of positive expectations. This starts with acknowledging how you are feeling (I feel lonely, worried, upset or discouraged) but not spending a lot of your time dwelling on them, rather letting them go”, Sneha explains to Gulf News.
As you practice doing this, you would find it easier to let go of emotions that cause you sadness, stress and fear.
“The next step, would be to make a simple list of positive expectations or things you are looking forward to do on a daily basis. For example, one such positive expectation is working towards being physically healthy during this time. You may do this by starting your day with a morning routine where you get ready for the day.
So get up and wash, comb hair and change from your PJs to something comfortable, change up your breakfast options by adding a variety, taking up a new hobby and learning how to use the computer so you can connect with your loved ones. During this time, life may get monotonous for some, hence it is important to get creative with our time. Incorporating a change in the way we do things can improve our overall mood and self-worth. Gratitude is a powerful positive emotion that would help elderly people achieve a sense of control over their current lifestyle. This can be done using a gratitude list. Simply, dedicate a time during your day to remember how you have overcome challenging situations in the past, the resources that helped you and how you may some of them in the current time.”
If you can’t do this, try that
Can’t go to the mall? Try a morning walk around your home
If you live in an area in which you can easily walk around, wake up extra early, so the weather is slightly cooler and take a walk around your neighborhood. Now, you can technically be outside with a mask on, just not in a supermarket or mall.
Can’t see your family? Try figuring out how to video chat
Ask anyone you can, to help you download apps onto your phone that allow you to connect with family members. I’ve heard my mom walk my grandmother through the steps of downloading Zoom and Botim over the phone.
Can’t grocery shop, because you live alone? Try out the ‘buddy system’
A UAE resident named Anna MacMillan started the group #InThisTogether - UAE Buddy. The idea is to connect people who need help with people who can help. Get in touch and ask for someone to buy groceries for you. There is never any shame in asking for help. Community members can register on the website and then follow the group through the Facebook and Instagram pages.