Photo of an elderly man looking out the window

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With COVID-19 putting unprecedented stress on our already overburdened systems of support for older people, the need to provide for the mental and physical health of this population has reached a critical level. On this episode of the podcast, we are joined for the second time by licensed clinical social worker Carly Bassett, who specializes in mental health care for older adults.

Choosing Between Mental and Physical Health

Like most people on the planet right now, Bassett’s clients, who are mostly older adults, are experiencing increased anxiety and depression as the lack of control and uncertainty regarding the pandemic continues to play out.

Maintaining social connections is extremely important for sustaining mental health—especially so for older adults. But with the unique threat posed by coronavirus, this need conflicts with ensuring older adults’ physical safety. “Some people feel compelled to make strong decisions for their own physical health that I think may be detrimental to their mental health,” Bassett explains. “We see clients who, even among their family members, have differences of opinion about isolating, what they should or shouldn’t be doing.”

Now more than ever, Bassett explains, the question for many older adults has become, “Is it worth risking physical health to get out and to take some chances to have connection and interaction with other people?”

Grief during COVID-19

Much of Bassett’s work with clients focuses on those who have experienced loss. COVID-19 is complicating her work and the normal grieving process in profound ways. Working with those who have lost a spouse prior to the pandemic, Bassett has seen many clients experience setbacks in the progress and momentum of their grieving process. Many older adults experiencing grief are now stuck at home, surrounded by memories, without respite. “Normally, we would encourage [older adults who are grieving] to get out and break up their day and distract themselves with other things,” says Basset. “For a lot of people that’s literally not possible.”

The situation is just as stark for those who have experienced loss during the pandemic itself. “They are unable to really enjoy what we typically do in terms of rites in our society: gatherings and having memorials and being able to do that real grief work with other people. They’ve been deprived of those opportunities.” Emotionally, clients are feeling stuck, hopeless, and lonely.

Nursing Homes as High-Risk Environments

It is no secret among residents in nursing homes and assisted living facilities that they are living in high-risk environments. Many facilities have reduced the frequency of outside visits, not just from friends and family, but also from entertainers and activity-leaders who often come to interact with the residents. “From a mental health perspective, thinking about all the extras that help make the quality of life higher in those environments are often the first things to go,” says Bassett. “I think everybody feels that.”

Ways of Easing the Burden for Older Adults

Collectively, this a moment for all of us to be creative and aware when it comes to caring for older adults in our lives. For Bassett, this means finding ways to connect with her clients who may not be comfortable with telehealth or teletherapy. “I think there’s easy ways to do that,” she says. “Sending text messages. Sending cards in the mail. Doing things that relax the typical clinical boundaries are really important right now.” Barrett adds that those of us who are not in traditional clinical roles can think creatively about ways to connect with the older adults in our lives, even if they do not have access to technology. “Although older people, especially in facilities, are not visible or seen in the news and in the media, they are still there, and collectively we have to remember that.”


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