Senior Health

5/4/2021 | By Annie Tobey

The pandemic has cast a long shadow on people around the world, making attention to May as Mental Health Awareness Month more important than ever. Older adults were most at risk of severe illness from the coronavirus, though people of all ages are suffering mental health fallout from the pandemic. The problems of COVID and mental health for seniors are real, but solutions are near.

Contributing factors

In March 2020, the number of Americans contracting and dying from COVID-19 skyrocketed. Many who didn’t contract the illness nonetheless knew people who did – peers, friends, family members, neighbors. To avoid contracting the virus, we began social distancing, which led to increased social isolation. Some who survived COVID suffered long-term repercussions.

To Americans of all ages, the repercussions reached beyond health – job changes and job loss, financial challenges, childcare and schooling issues, and more. These and other life changes – or simply uncertainty and fear of the future – have led to stress, anxiety, and depression.

In Stress in America 2020: A National Mental Health Crisis, the American Psychological Association broke down mental health problems by age. According to the report, Gen Z adults (46%) were the most likely generation to say that their mental health has worsened during the pandemic, followed by Gen Xers (33%), Millennials (31%), Boomers (28%) and older adults (9%). Around half of adults (47%) say they have felt very lonely during the pandemic, especially Gen Z and Millennials.

Now that more than 50% of U.S. adults are vaccinated and restrictions are loosening, we can feel hopeful for a post-pandemic return to normalcy. But returning to “normal” won’t happen overnight.

Seniors Guide offers insights from Dr. Ashvin Patel of Dominion Behavioral Healthcare (DBH), who is board certified in adult and geriatric psychiatry. His guidance can help people of all ages – and our loved ones.

Solutions to COVID and Mental Health for Seniors

Dr. Patel, what issues might we face as the pandemic eases?

Stress and anxiety can be prolonged from common concerns like: What is it going to be like going back into the office? How will I react to traveling for the first time or being in large groups? Will there be other coronavirus strains in the future? Will I have to get an annual booster vaccine?

But it’s important to remember that stress is a normal reaction to whatever is going on in your life, good or bad. With uncertainty comes heightened stress, but sometimes stress can be positive to make one more proactive. We are transitioning back to being able to see loved ones and friends. We’re easing into increased socialization, which helps minimize depression symptoms. We’re beginning to shift back into organized activities and hobbies.

Focusing on what we DO know will happen after COVID is a helpful approach to coping with the transition.

What are the warning signs of anxiety?

Anxiety is an internal reaction to stress with a persistent feeling of apprehension, dread, or uneasiness. Symptoms may include feelings of persistent and severe worrying, overthinking, inability to relax, trouble focusing, and feelings of restlessness. Individuals may have trouble breathing, may sweat excessively, have an increased heart rate, and experience an overall feeling of fear and panic.

What are the warning signs of depression?

Depression is a mood disorder characterized by overwhelming sadness. Warning signs may include feelings of hopelessness, loss of interest in activities and socialization, trouble sleeping, feeling exhausted, a change in appetite, pains or aches, and feeling like small tasks take extra effort.

Anxiety and depression can occur together or can be experienced separately as well.

What tips do you have for adapting to the continued uncertainty of the future?

Just because COVID is starting to slowly go away doesn’t mean that one’s anxiety has gone away. There will still be a level of fear due to instability and uncertainty. But instilling a sense of hope [from increased vaccination rates and decreased hospitalization] is a healthy way to adapt to the future and new realities.

Positivity is key. Try to refocus your mind on taking action over the aspects of your life that are within your control in a positive way. Instead of trying to predict what might happen in the future, switch your attention to what’s happening right now. By being fully connected to the present, you can interrupt the negative assumptions and catastrophic predictions running through your mind.

What guidance do you have for combating stress, anxiety, and/or depression?

  1. Exercise – Now that the weather is warmer, take a walk. The more exercise you do, the more endorphins and serotonin you raise, which makes you feel better about yourself. Increased exercise also results in better sleep.
  2. Social interaction with family and loved ones – Take the necessary safety precautions, but speak to friends, family, or neighbors in person. Social interaction and spending time with others is an effective way to help combat symptoms of depression. Find your person that you are comfortable confiding in.
  3. Participate in a new hobby – Take part in a positive activity that brings you joy.
  4. Focus on your breathing – Yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises help control emotions and distract from negative thoughts. Download apps to your phone such as Calm or Headspace to assist in relaxation. 
  5. Use telehealth – Telehealth has become more common since the pandemic and will continue to grow for some time. Depending on the severity of depression, individuals may be recommended medication, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) Therapy, or Spravato® nasal spray.

Dr. Ashvin Patel, M.D., DLFAPA, is a Distinguished Life Fellow of the APA and recognized by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) as an exemplary psychiatrist. Dr. Patel’s interest is in treatment of depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, ADHD, and geriatric disorders. He provides psychiatric diagnoses and medical management of psychiatric disorders with limited psychotherapy. Contact him at Dominion Behavioral Healthcare.

Other resources for COVID and mental health for seniors

As Stress in America 2020: A National Mental Health Crisis notes, people of all ages are feeling the fallout from the pandemic. Use these resources to connect with assistance for yourself or loved ones.

Check out these six apps that help ease loneliness.


National Suicide Prevention Hotline – 800-273-8255 or visit

Annie Tobey

Annie Tobey has been a professional writer and editor for more than 30 years. As editor of BOOMER magazine, she explored a diversity of topics of particular interest to adult children of seniors. When she’s not writing, she can be found running the trails or enjoying a beer with friends.

Annie Tobey