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For seniors, pandemic has added to issues with mental health, isolation, depression

Portland area psychiatrists and aging advocates say many seniors have been suffering silently and alone. "They feel like no one cares about them."

PORTLAND, Ore. — The pandemic has been difficult on everyone, but it has had a disproportionate impact on older adults. They're the most likely to contract COVID-19, to be hospitalized and to die. According to the health policy group KFF, adults 65 and older account for 16 percent of the US population, but 80 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the US. Not only that, the isolation caused by the pandemic has taken a steep toll on seniors.

A spokesperson for AARP Oregon, Joyce DeMonnin, said the impact is 10 to 20 times worse for older adults living alone.

"We are seeing a lot of anxiety, frustration, and frankly, a lot of fear because it is this age group that is getting the sickest and passing away," she said.

DeMonnin and Portland geriatric psychiatrists, Dr. Maureen Nash, and Dr. Vimal Aga, were guests on this week's episode of "Straight Talk" to discuss how the pandemic has affected older adults and to give them information on resources that can help.

Straight Talk airs on KGW February 13 and 14 at 6:30pm and on February 16 at 7pm

Watch the latest episode

Loneliness kills

Startling statistics from the AARP reveal just how big a toll the pandemic is taking on the mental health of seniors. The isolation resulting from the pandemic is more than feeling lonely.

According to one study, 17 percent of people 65 and older feel isolated, while 26 percent risk early death due to loneliness. And nearly half of all women 75 and older live alone, the group Connect2Affect found.

Nash is a geriatric psychiatrist and medical director at Providence ElderPlace. She said loneliness is having a major impact on older adults in Oregon.

"Those statistics highlight what we in geriatrics know, loneliness kills," she said.

Nash said loneliness is different from solitude. Solitude is when a person chooses to be alone and can have social support if and when they want it or need it. But loneliness magnifies everything for seniors who may be struggling with a variety of challenges especially during the pandemic.
She called on the community to step in to help.

"There's never been a more important time than the present, the most important thing we can do is reach out to friends and neighbors, anyone you know who is older and might be isolated. This is a great time to extend a hand," she aid.

Oregon also has a "loneliness hot line" at 503-200-1633. There's also a national toll free "Friendship Line" at 1-800-971-0016.
The website AARP Connect2affect.org also has a variety of resources and tools to help seniors overcome isolation.

Anger over vaccination timeline

AARP's Joyce DeMonnin has been fielding dozens of calls for days from seniors frustrated with the timeline for getting a COVID-19 vaccine. Many wonder why they've had to wait longer than many seniors in other states who are getting vaccinated.

She said the AARP has been advocating for Oregon to follow the national CDC recommendations that older adults go first.

"I'm sorry to report Oregon is the last in getting older adults in the queue to get vaccinated and people are furious and impatient," she said.

She said about 5 percent of the calls and letters she gets are from seniors who are okay with waiting, but the vast majority are fearful about the time it's taking to get vaccinated.

"We have a lot of folks who are calling because they are sick and they're afraid if they get exposed to this virus, they are going to die. It's been a tough time," DeMonnin said.

Frustration over the process of getting an appointment

In Oregon, people who want to get vaccinated when they're eligible have to make an appointment through the state's online portal: covidvaccine.oregon.gov.

But, that's adding to the anxiety for many older Oregonians, many of whom are not tech savvy or live in a rural area with poor broadband.

Aga, a geriatric psychiatrist at OHSU's Brain Institute, said many older adults may have cognitive impairment or dementia making it difficult to use the online system without assistance, and because of the pandemic may also be isolated from family who could help.

Then, there's a systemic issue.

"A lot of older folks don't understand we can't call our regular doctor to get the vaccine. We have to call one of those numbers or we have to go online to get an appointment. They're used to just calling their doctor and going in and getting a vaccine," he said.

DeMonnin said AARP Oregon has advocated for a toll free 1-800 number anyone could call to make an appointment. She said many other states are using that system, but so far, the state of Oregon hasn't responded by setting one up. It does have a 211 hot line, but the number is for information only, not to make a vaccine appointment.

"(A 1-800 number) seems like a more common sense approach and all Oregonians who have struggles with computer access could get an appointment in a fair and equitable way," she said.

Putting teachers and health care workers ahead of seniors

Many older Oregonians calling AARP have expressed anger over Governor Brown's decision to put teachers ahead of seniors. Brown said she was concerned about the mental health of young people and wanted to get schools reopened.

Judy Boyer of the AARP's Northeast Portland chapter echoed what many callers have said.

"We do not understand why we are taking a back seat.... you know we believe educators and essential workers should be vaccinated and now they're saying the prisoners...but don't put seniors in the back. Why aren't we right along side in the first group?" Boyer said.

DeMonnin said many seniors called AARP Oregon in disbelief and shock when they heard the governor's decision. She said AARP, the Oregon Gerontological Association, and the governor's own Commission on Senior Services all wrote separate letters to Governor Brown asking her to reverse her decision. DeMonnin said they never heard back.

"The older adults I have talked to feel like no one cares about them. I think- disposable is probably a good word to sum up what I've been hearing." she said. "People ask why we can't stop this. I told them I would if I could, but we don't have the power."

Some even wanted AARP to sue the state. DeMonnin said that's in the past, seniors are now getting vaccinated, and AARP Oregon is moving forward trying to get older Oregonians the best information they can.

Sophie's choice

Nash called the decisions on who gets vaccinated first a bit like "Sophie's Choice," a 1982 movie about a difficult choice where no outcome is preferable over the other.

"It's totally a 'Sophie's Choice' moment," she said.

"The reality is we don't have enough vaccine. I think that's compounded things. You have a situation that you have no control over. Oregon would be happy to vaccinate everyone tomorrow if they had enough vaccine," she said.

She said she thinks Oregon has done a decent job distributing the vaccine when there was no national strategy in place in the beginning. She said Oregon is in the top 20 states in its rate of vaccine distribution.

She understands seniors' frustration and anger about having to wait. However, she said the choices of who gets the vaccine are difficult ones with no good answer until there's more vaccine.

"Children have a window and if you miss that window in their development, they can't go back. So, I think the lost time from schools is definitely weighing on people," Nash said.

Pandemic reveals ageism

Nash also believes the pandemic has exposed ageism in the U-S.

"One of the most disturbing things I heard early on, there were various phrases trending on Twitter like 'Boomer Remover' and other disparaging comments," she said.

Nash pointed out many younger people are also getting sick and dying from COVID 19.

"I get an email every day from the Oregon Health Authority and I see plenty of people far younger than I am who have died. It's not just a disease of older adults," she said.

Dementia patients dying from isolation during pandemic

The Washington Post reported between March and September 2020, the most recent data available, 134,200 people died from Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. That's 13,200 more US deaths caused by dementia than expected, compared to previous years. The article said people are dying not just from dementia but from the "strategy of isolation that is supposed to protect them.

OHSU's Dr. Vimal Aga calls the news sobering. He said there are many reasons that may contribute to the increase in deaths such as more transmission in long-term care facilities, but that isolation may be a big factor.

"Families are not able to come in as much as they used to. We also think of families as providing emotional and perhaps instrumental help. And don't forget, families are also advocates. So, they come in and see something, they talk to staff, and now that's not happening anymore," he said.

A New York Times article also reported a large study found people with dementia are twice as likely to get COVID.

In addition, the study found "Black people with dementia were nearly three times as likely as white people with dementia to get the virus." Experts said that most likely reflected what we have already seen during the pandemic that people of color have been disproportionately harmed by the pandemic.

Dr. Nash: 'Remember you are a resilient person'

Amid the fears and anxiety caused by the pandemic, Dr. Nash wants seniors to think about this:

"Remember you are a resilient person. You have survived many things over the years," she said.

Dr. Aga reiterated how important it is for family, friends and neighbors to connect with older adults who may be isolated.

"By reaching out you might end up saving a life," he said.

Resources

  • To make a vaccine appointment in Oregon: covidvaccine.oregon.gov
  • For information in Oregon: Call 211 Or Text ORCOVID to 898211
  • In Washington: Call 1-800-525-0127
  • To make a vaccine appointment: FindYourPhaseWA.org
  • To find resources to overcome isolation: Connect2Affect.org
  • Oregon Loneliness Hot Line: 503-200-1633
  • Toll Free Friendship Line: 1-00-971-0016

Straight Talk airs on February 13 and 14 at 6:30pm and on February 16 at 7pm. Straight Talk is also available as a podcast.