Published June 15th, 2021 at 9:41 AM
At the start of the pandemic, families were worried about their aging loved ones.
The virus was still unknown and the senior population – those 65 and older – were most vulnerable. From one day to the next, assisted living and other senior centers barred access even to family members to protect their most vulnerable residents from a quick-spreading and unpredictable virus.
So, what has happened to those seniors who were isolated during the pandemic year? How are they doing?
That’s what Samantha Johnson wants to know. Johnson works in the community engagement team at Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center.
Specifically, she asked curiousKC: “How hard has the pandemic affected our senior population and senior citizens of color? Has there been a rise in suicides?”
There’s not an easy answer because there are mixed reports out there.
Some studies such as one by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in November 2020 suggested that senior citizens are doing OK, or displayed resilience, at least early on.
James Stowe, director of the Mid-America Regional Council Area Agency on Aging, agreed.
“It’s always important to point out the resiliency of this group,” Stowe said. “Despite the extreme headwinds, a lot of people adapt well to new situations, thrive throughout even isolation and are emerging strong at the end of it.”
Studies support that claim.
An excerpt of the JAMA study reads: “Approximately eight months into the pandemic, multiple studies have indicated that older adults may be less negatively affected by mental health outcomes than other age groups.”
This tracks with a separate report by the American Journal of Geriatrics Psychiatry (AJGP) cited in the November study. It’s worth noting that this paper focused on older adults with pre-existing depressive disorder. Nonetheless, researchers found “no increase in depression, anxiety, or suicidality.”
The AJGP study, however, was conducted just two months into the pandemic and other themes emerged. One was that their 60-plus survey participants expressed fear of what continued social distancing would do to their mental health.
A more recent study out of the University of Michigan focused on just that.
Among adults 50-80 years old who were part of the university’s National Poll on Healthy Aging study, nearly one in five said their mental state was worse after the pandemic, meaning a year and two months since it hit the globe.
It’s clear they had the foresight to anticipate the long-lasting effects of isolation.
It’s good to note that the studies cited above did not track racial demographics so the impact on seniors of color was unclear. But another report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, entitled “Double Jeopardy” shines a light on how much more vulnerable senior citizens of color have been during the COVID-19 pandemic. The report called it “compounding behavioral health issues.” An excerpt reads:
“Given the existing impediments to care for Blacks and Latinos due to social determinants of health, COVID-19 pandemic will place those with behavioral health problems at even higher vulnerability. Blacks and Latinos have lower access to needed treatment, often terminate treatment prematurely, and 3 experience less culturally responsive care.”
Lisa Cox, communications director at the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said the state stepped in to try and support seniors. Among the many things the state did, Cox said in an email, was social, nutrition and vaccine assistance. But to curb the whiplash of lockdown, she said the state enacted a few more things.
“The state provided friendly calls and visits to ensure that older adults had interaction with others,” she wrote. “Additional waivers provided to the Area Agencies on Aging allowed the funding to be used for any purpose to meet the specific needs of the older adults living in their areas during the pandemic.”
Early research also suggests that the pandemic did not spur an increase in suicides among seniors in the Kansas City metro area.
“While people have struggled with their mental health during the pandemic, there has not been an increase in suicides amongst any age groups,” Debra Walker, director of public and legislative affairs with the Missouri Department of Mental Health, wrote in an email.
However, some mental health advocates note that suicide among the elderly are often underreported, according to the United Health Foundation. In Kansas, the suicide rate of those age 65-plus per 100,000 people is 18.5 and in Missouri it’s 19.2. The suicide rates in both states, generally get worse with age and surpass the national average.
Kevin Edwards, owner of Elder Care of Kansas City, said while he has not lost any of his clients to suicide during this year, the abrupt interruption of daily routines may exacerbate pre-existing mental health disorders.
Locking down and refraining from seeing friends and family like before was especially difficult for people who have Alzheimer’s.
“They were used to seeing certain family members on a regular basis and when that stops, that can really create problems for the individual,” Edwards said. “Anything that’s out of their routine is going to increase their level of anxiety.”
He added that at the peak of the pandemic, families who feared not being able to see their loved ones pulled them out of facilities and brought them home.
This, some say, has contributed to the surge in intergenerational housing situations, which Flatland reported last summer. Historically, 27% of older people in the U.S. tend to live alone compared with 16% elsewhere in the world, according to a recent Pew Research study. A report by the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services shows that more than half of Kansans live with family, which could ease some concerns about the implications of isolation during the pandemic.
However, much work is still needed to better support aging Kansas Citians. Technology has been a huge help for folks who live alone to continue socializing. But for those who live in more rural parts of the area or cannot afford internet, much less a device, this need goes unfulfilled.
This is part of what Stowe aims to do at the Mid-America Regional Council Area Agency on Aging. He said data – though incomplete – and anecdotal evidence show there are inadequate behavioral and mental health support systems in the U.S. and, on a more granular level, in Kansas City.
That’s why folks slip through the cracks.
For Stowe, community engagement is key to ensuring a healthy lifestyle for the 65-plus community. When the pandemic eliminated socializing, it laid bare some harsh truths such as tech illiteracy, access to information and inequities in the health care system.
“Once you kind of dip into mental health issues, it’s harder to come out of that,” he said. “And so I think there will be profound and lasting impacts and we’ll have to measure it and pay attention to it and then deliver what people want to get them back engaged.”
Area Community Mental Health Centers:
Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS.