After Russ Greco put his work as a construction contractor behind him last year, he found himself feeling a little lost, so he did what many people do at that stage of life: He began looking for ways to become more involved in the community.
“You start to feel a little bit irrelevant when you retire and you tend to have less contact with people,” he said. “I think there are a lot of people like me out there who are looking for human connections.”
Greco, 71, found new connections through Associated Catholic Charities of New Orleans, which placed him as a volunteer teaching English in the local Refugee Family Literacy program. “Working with refugees and immigrants, mostly from Latin America, appealed to me as I have a background in Spanish,” he said.
He reflected on his volunteer experience in a video he made after Catholic Charities named him a volunteer of the month. “Getting up and out of your house and connecting with people who need help is one of the best things that a retiree can do,” Greco said. “It keeps you alive and allows you to give back to the community.”
Volunteering is one of the activities that become particularly important to millions of people each year as they confront the realities of a post-career life. U.S. Census Bureau data show that by the end of this decade every member of the Baby Boom generation will be older than age 65.
Doctors say that lifestyle decisions people make at this stage can mean the difference between aging with strength and resilience or falling into a state of physical and mental decline. The impact of those choices has become even clearer amid the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, pandemic.
Staying connected while maintaining social distance can help your physical and mental well-being during this time. Here’s how.
Group chats and texting
Have a text conversation with a group of people using an app on your smartphone. It lets everyone chime in, laugh and have fun as a group.
Use your smartphone or computer to show off your latest craft project. Or host a virtual dinner party or game night.
Share photos with your friends or family using a photo-sharing website. You can set up private groups of friends and family members, or send your favorites via text or email.
It’s wonderful to hear a person’s voice, even if you can’t physically be with them. Call someone you haven’t talked to in a while.
Letters and cards
Personal mail is rare these days. A card or letter can be a meaningful day brightener.
Keep tabs on what the people in your social circle are doing. Then share your thoughts and activities with them.
Health plan website
Your health plan can provide the latest information about COVID-19 and steps you can take to stay safe. You’ll also discover online health and wellness resources to help you work toward your health goals.
Source: AARP/Medicare Plans from United Healthcare
Primary care physician Nicole Giambrone sees many elderly patients in her internal medicine practice at Ochsner Health, and she says that, especially now, it’s easy to spot those who have been physically active and had healthy habits throughout their lives. “People who have maintained a healthy lifestyle and have been less sedentary are able to do more than others as they age, and they tend to hold up better when they get sick,” Giambrone said
Giambrone recommends that older patients get at least 150 minutes of some type of exercise each week to promote a general sense of well-being. Activity ranging from aerobic exercise to bicycle riding to gardening, walking or just going up and down stairs can not only boost physical health but also help reduce stress, which is vitally important at the moment, she said.
The social-distancing requirements brought on by COVID-19 can be particularly stressful to older patients who may experience feelings of isolation more acutely than younger persons, the doctor said. “What a lot of my patients complain about is the inability to hug people right now,” she said. “New Orleans is very big on community and interacting with others – we hug people hello and goodbye – and that loss of touch is really hard for some people.“
Giambrone and other doctors increasingly rely on telemedicine to connect with patients whose needs do not require that they visit a clinic in person. By using easily available technology such as Zoom, Facetime or Skype, patients can have one-on-one visits with their health care provider via a computer, smart phone or tablet.
“Virtual medicine is important to my job right now because some of my patients are afraid to go to their doctor’s office to seek care,” Giambrone said. But she notes that people continue to have heart problems and issues such as uncontrolled diabetes during the pandemic. “You should not let your fear get in the way of seeking professional help,” she said.
Ochsner and many other providers may require patients to wear a face mask to visit a doctor or clinic. Staff also wear masks, and they check the temperature of each patient who enters. “We use personal protective equipment as necessary because we don’t want to spread any disease, but we want patients to feel comfortable about coming in,” she said.
For all who are able, physical activity and attention to mental health remain crucial, Giambrone said. “When people get really anxious, they should go for a walk or do meditation or deep breathing. Some people find it helps to pray. Everybody has different ways of dealing with stress, and the moment that we stop doing those things is when we tend to feel worse mentally and physically.”
RESOURCES FOR SENIORS
Here are some resources that may be particularly helpful during and in the reopening phases of the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you need meals, visit Meals on Wheels and Feeding America for options in your zip code.
Many grocery providers have created times for only seniors to shop. Some also offer online shopping, curbside pickup and/or home delivery. Call or check their websites for details.
Try the Eldercare Locator for local services. Lyft is also partnering with the National Council on Aging to meet the transportation needs of caregivers who are supporting older adults during the outbreak. They are currently piloting the program and plan to launch soon. Stay updated by following Lyft.
Mental Health and Social Isolation
If you feel in distress, talk with someone at the Disaster Stress Hotline or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also look into the Coalition to End Social Isolation and Loneliness or the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Get advice from your local State Health Insurance Assistance Program or from Medicare.gov.
On BenefitsCheckUp.org, you’ll find options in your state to help with utility bill payments, prescription drug costs and more.
You can take steps to help protect yourself or a loved one from the financial impact of the coronavirus. For more information, look into these resources:
- Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
- Internal Revenue Service
- Senior Medicare Patrol on COVID-19 related Medicare fraud
- Social Security Administration
SAGE Hotline: 1-877-360-LGBT
Department of Veterans Affairs
VA National Center for PTSD
Source: Ochsner Health
MIND AND BODY
Professionals involved in geriatric care or counseling emphasize that having a support network is a key part of maintaining resilience and vibrancy as individuals age. Rachel Ruth, director of senior services for New Orleans Jewish Community Center, oversees many programs and activities aimed not only at keeping elderly people active and engaged, but also at bringing people together on a regular basis.
“Social isolation is detrimental to people’s physical and mental health, and our whole focus is on stimulating retired folks physically, mentally and spiritually,” she said.
The JCC offers many activities to promote those goals. Ordinarily, many newly retired persons use the center’s fitness facility for regular workouts or take classes in low-impact or water aerobics. For those not capable of using the fitness center, the JCC offers chair exercise and better-balance classes with trainers.
The center also holds “game days” where people bring a lunch and sit together to play mahjong, bridge and the like. And JCC’s monthly lecture series, which presents speakers from a wide range of professions, is one of the center’s biggest draws among retired people. But the pandemic has shut down many such activities, raising concerns for those who previously participated.
“Anyone who has been going through this pandemic knows that no longer having a regular schedule and something to look forward to every week or month is depressing,” Ruth said. “Over time this can lead to mental degradation.” Which is why the JCC now is putting many of its activities, such as group exercise and the lecture series, online.
Health care providers warn that persons of retirement age and older can be vulnerable to a decline in mental health even when they are not facing pandemic-related restrictions.
Mehdi Qalbani, a psychiatrist and co-founder of Integrated Behavior Health, which has offices in New Orleans, Metairie and Covington, said that the people who seem most resilient to the challenges of aging are those who have a strong social network and interests that extend beyond their immediate family.
“Older people who keep up to date with news and what’s going on in the world tend to hold up better, mentally, than those who retreat from society,” Qalbani said. He noted that computer literacy and access to technology are important tools for elderly persons to stay in touch with their adult children, grandchildren, college friends and other acquaintances. Learning to use such technology and developing social habits that improve their mental resiliency can help seniors stand up to the stress when their circumstances suddenly change.
“It’s fair to say that the coronavirus is impacting all generations, but particularly older persons because of their susceptibility and the potential consequences should they get COVID-19,” he said. He advises anyone who previously has had mental health issues to stay connected with their psychiatrist or therapist. “Also, if you have mental or physical illness, stick to your medication regimen.”
Qalbani also advises his patients to “address their inner lives by practicing the faith that feels comfortable to you.” For those who are non-religious, he suggests meditation or other calming techniques.
He said he has been surprised at how many people seem to have found greater clarity of purpose through the isolation wrought by the pandemic. “I have patients tell me that they have come to understand what matters – they no longer get so caught up in unimportant things, like worrying about what other people think of them.”
Qalbani said the eight psychiatrists and therapists in his company now are working with many patients online, and older patients have responded well. “You might think that people in this age group would have difficulty with the technology, but they are handling it just fine,” he said.
Gentle exercise is a great way to keep moving and its benefits go beyond the physical. Many people find they have more time in retirement to enjoy wide-ranging exercise that includes strength and balance classes in yoga, tai chi or dance.
During the pandemic, some local exercise facilities that ceased in-person classes began providing free exercise videos online to help people continue their workouts at home. Plans for continuing online classes are fluid as the centers begin reopening, and some may require that you make a reservation, so it’s best to call or check their websites for the latest information, and check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program.
Please visit myneworleans.com for a few centers that offer a range of options that may include special exercise programs for seniors.
Video technology has become crucial for health professionals of all kinds during the pandemic, said Giambrone at Ochsner, and she urges people who are not using technology such as Zoom, Facetime or Facebook Messenger to ask someone for help in doing so.
She worries most about how limitations on social interaction may affect patients who live alone and don’t have a nearby family member or friend they can call for help with errands or getting a ride to a hospital. “We have seen a rise in people dying from strokes and heart attacks, and I can’t help thinking that it’s COVID-related because they didn’t seek the care they should have,” she said.
Organizations such as the JCC are doing their best to help elderly people stave off the effects of isolation and anxiety about the pandemic. Ruth said she regularly phones members who previously attended the center’s activities, just to check in and ask how they are doing. For one woman who lives alone and no longer drives, Ruth arranged a weekly meeting of friends in the woman’s backyard, with all maintaining appropriate social distance. “It has been very successful in helping her manage her situation,” Ruth said.
Whether older people are having difficulty adjusting to the restrictive lifestyle of a pandemic or simply to the new realities of retirement, Qalbani said it’s a good idea to see the glass as half-full. “Initially, when first retire you’re looking for something to change how that time feels,” he said. “Try thinking of it not as an ending but as an opportunity for a new beginning.”
He urges his patients to be willing to try new things. “One person might take up golf, another starts baking, another does pottery. You really need to look after your mental and physical well-being and your social connections.”
Men often find social engagement more difficult than do women, Qalbani said, because many men are uncomfortable talking about themselves or socializing in ways that come more naturally to women. “When it gets really bad you see those social determinants having an impact, and an individual may become less likely to control a chronic illness or manage his general well-being,” he said.
Qalbani suggests that older men seek affiliations with groups that share their interests.
It could be a church, synagogue or mosque, or it might be a professional society that helps connect them with their previous work. “Rotary clubs have been awesome for some men I know,” Qalbani said, adding that activities like golfing seem effective at keeping men connected.
But regardless of gender, persons who have reached their so-called golden years should do everything they can to maintain optimism and a sense of purpose as they age. “Our mantra is, ‘please take care of your mental and physical health and stay connected.’ Every part of that is important,” Qalbani said.
BREATHE TO STAY CALM
Practicing mindful breathing can help you access the part of your nervous system that allows you to reduce stress and think more clearly. With one breath you can trick your brain into relaxation mode. Here’s a simple three-minute exercise you can use no matter where you are.
Sit or stand up nice and tall. Let your eyes relax. Relax your jaw. Let your shoulders relax down your back and start to focus your attention on your breath.
Breathe all the way in through your nose, filling your belly with your breath. Then, breathe all the way out through your nose.
Start to breathe into a count of three. Inhale for one, two, three. Then, exhale into a count of six: six, five, four, three, two and one. Repeat.
Continue just like this for three minutes, or as long as you’d like. You can set a timer on your phone at the beginning of your practice.
Should your mind wander, simply observe your thought and let it go. Return your breath to your attention as many times as it takes, training your mind in the same way we train our bodies. You can use this breathing pattern to find a moment of mindfulness throughout the day.
Source: Ochsner Health