How to help older people in self-isolation

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The COVID-19 pandemic has forced elderly Australians to self-isolate for the sake of their physical health but it is taking a toll on their mental wellbeing, according to experts.

"I would definitely say the patients we have in are anxious and concerned about what is going on in the community with their families and loved ones,'' said Ciall Rogers, manager of the mental health unit at Albury Wodonga Private Hospital on the New South Wales-Victoria border.

"The hospital has obviously had to place certain restrictions on the number of visitors allowed to visit, which doesn’t make the situation any easier for our patients,” he added.

Albert Road Clinic, a Melbourne-based geriatric psychiatry service also owned by Ramsay Health Care, is expecting an influx of older patients in coming months.

“Not only are they worried about being at particular risk of the virus, but they are also worried about their financial health with the share market down, and now they are worried about being isolated from their family, friends and the community generally,” consulting psychiatrist Dr Peter McArdle said.

“All these things are being amplified and the ripple effect is quite major in their lives, especially for those in their 80s who don’t know how to use computers and stay connected in that way.’’

Mr Rogers said families have a vital role to play in keeping their older relatives feeling connected, as the pandemic will have a continuing impact on people’s lives and mental health.

"Remain in contact with your elderly loved ones via phone or Skype – a short call doesn’t take much but it can mean so much to so many people. 

"Also ensure that your elderly loved ones have enough supplies/food; if you’re able to, go for a short walk and wave to your loved ones while they remain in isolation,” he advised. 

Dr McArdle encouraged older people to develop a routine in isolation and keep structure in their day, whether it’s reading, music, watching television, going for a walk or calling friends.

“When it comes to treatment I’m discussing strategies to cope. Sometimes that may be urging breathing, relaxation, monitoring mood and exercise for anxiety. Early contact with GP and pharmacy for medication,” he said.

“Most people are resilient and they will work through this. Many in their 70s are pretty switched on to technology. It’s the vulnerable with existing mental health issues or suffering from poverty that are really going to have trouble,” Dr McArdle added.

Mr Rogers said the most important thing was to stay positive.

"We have a fantastic healthcare system here in Australia and we will get through this!'' 

Read more: APHA backs new mental health plan

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