Stress Management for Seniors and Families During the Covid-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 Pandemic has had serious implications that have gone far beyond just a spread of infection, as it has instilled fear and anxiety among people across the globe.   As the COVID-19 virus is so new, it is natural for many to become fearful.  This fear can be overwhelming and cause some to become frightened, anxious, and stressed towards infected patients.  It is important to note that our reactions will affect the people around us, especially the young and the elderly.  So, is there a way for us to deal with the virus pandemic with poise and reason?

“Each person deals with stress differently, and much depends on the situation.  How a person responds to the infection is based on that person’s physical and mental family background.  A family dealing with the stress together can help each other better overcome this psychological crisis”, says Professor Sudaporn Stithyudhakarn, Department of Nursing Science in Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, Faculty of Nursing, Chulalongkorn University.

Stress can be caused by external and internal factors. “It is very much like a warning signal that helps prepare us for tough times.  On the other hand, if the signal is overworked, it can lead to a cumulative stress disorder.  Chronic stress is the cause for physical and mental illness”, says Professor Sudaporn.

It is all about mind over matter.  Symptoms of elderly stress may include shortness of breath, tension in the neck and limbs, muscle spasms, changes in eating or sleeping habits, or a shorter attention span.  People with pre-existing health conditions may encounter stronger symptoms, such as irritability, lack of concentration, inability to control emotions, or the inability to make sound decisions, as they fear the decision they take may affect their health or their loved ones.

“Despite the higher statistics of recovered COVID-19 patients, a number of older adults believe that if a person catches this disease, that person is doomed for death.  They replay an alarming scenario in their head, and no matter how much a situation is explained, they will only choose to accept what they believe.  This makes it important for caregivers to be patient and allow the elderly to vent their fear.  At the same time, however, we need to remember to share the facts and help the elderly understand the risks involved and the prevention methods available.  Another useful strategy is to use activities of distraction, either by watching a favorite television program or finding other safe activities to enjoy.”

Although most older adults are afraid of illnesses and tend to take extra care of themselves, there are still some who are adamant and not willing to take proper precautions.

“There are adults, as they get older, who become withdrawn and sheltered, similar to children.  Urge them to eat hot meals or wash their hands, and they will question you.   At times, you end up having to explain the consequences in detail.  The proper behavior is to not be too harsh, as this can cause stress and fear.”

Professor Sudaporn adds that it is normal for people to encounter conflict and crisis, as that is how we all learn to deal with our emotions and stress.  As with the COVID-19 pandemic, there are external factors that are beyond our control.  So, there is not much we can do except focus on controlling ourselves, such as taking care of our health, protecting ourselves properly, looking after our mental health, sending encouragement to each other, and practicing compassion as we try to get through this social and economic crisis.

“If someone in your family catches the disease, instead of showing fear, support them in every way possible.  Nobody wants to get infected and anyone can be infected.  We should not let the symptoms of the disease pressure us and affect who we are.  It is better to focus on how to live together safely and prevent the spread of the disease”, says Professor Sudaporn.

Being frightful towards the patient will not help the treatment in any way.  On the contrary, it will push the patient away to face the sickness alone.  If the patient feels unsafe, they will keep the illness to themselves due to fear of being misunderstood and rejected.  An illness kept secret also means everyone else around the patient will be unaware and unable to take proper precautions.  We need to change the way we react towards infected people.  We need to show them that we are there to help them get through the illness.

Also essential is the need to reduce stress while working or being isolated at home.

Those who normally travel to work may feel isolated and miserable from staying indoors, so finding a hobby or activity around the house helps.

“Ask yourself what activity makes you joyful.  Some of us enjoy watching movies, cooking, or playing with our pets.  The point is to find something that is fulfilling.  It does not matter if there is no substance to the hobby, as long as you are indoors, virus-free, and happy – do it.”

The last thing that will help reduce stress is making sure you select and receive news from reliable sources.  “There are plenty of updates on COVID-19 and the reality can be daunting and stressful.  Regardless, it is necessary to filter the news source, especially before sharing it with others.  Avoid traumatic news that can add to the stress.  Most importantly, stay home and help ‘flatten the curve’.  In the end, it is all for our own safety and those we love.”

Chula’s encouragement and support for research is excellent for teachers, students, and the public.

Associate Professor Dr. Suchana Chavanich Faculty of Science, Chulalongkorn University

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