Depression levels increase the longer older adults are isolated but they are resilient, research shows

Older adults are experiencing increased levels of depression the longer they remain isolated during the pandemic, but they are better at coping than young people, an international study is showing.

Shirley Kumove, 90, has been a resident at The Baycrest Terraces, a retirement residence in North York for six and half years.

Kumove said she has experienced feelings of loneliness, usually in the evening or night.

“There are a lot more challenges in lockdown than there are otherwise and it’s difficult. It’s difficult to be isolated. Not be able to do the things you want to do when you want to do them, but we make the best of it,” she told CTV News Toronto. 

“Not being lonely is a very big component of mental health and when you do feel lonely, you are very vulnerable, so I try not to let myself feel vulnerable for too long. I give into it for a few minutes because I’m only human.”

Kumove published six books about Jewish life in Toronto during her life. She continues to keep her spirits up by writing. 

When she feels vulnerable, she said she tries to get up and do something, and make phone calls to stay connected with friends and family. 

“So I’m not feeling sorry for myself for too long. A little bit is delicious, but too much is no good.”

Kumov is not alone in her ability to manage feelings during the pandemic. 

It’s a trend Donna Rose Addis has been observing as she works on an online international study involving 700 people, looking at young and older adults throughout the pandemic.

Addis is a senior scientist at Baycrest and the Rotman Research Institute, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto and a Canada 150 Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory and Aging.

Addis said living alone and having feelings of loneliness contribute to depression in both and young and old — but age is not the only factor when it comes to the impact pandemic isolation is having on mental health. 

“Interestingly in older adults only it’s the number of days they’ve spent in isolation that is increasing their levels of depression,” Addis told CTV News Toronto. 

Addis said they believe the depression stems from older adults experiencing a loss of time that they have left to spend with loved ones.

During the first lockdown, Addis found after 20 days in isolation older people were experiencing increased depression — feelings which have maintained throughout the pandemic.

YOUNG VERSUS OLD FINDINGS

Addis said from their sample, twice as many people in the study were older adults living alone, but found it’s younger adults who feel twice as lonely.

“There’s also a resilience that we see in older adults for coping with these things, with the negative consequences of the pandemic.”

Addis said they found young people’s mental health appears to be more affected by the potential threat of COVID-19, being exposed and infected. 

Addis said she believes older adults may be able to better cope from having a lifetime of experiences and putting things into perspective.

SHIFTS IN ISOLATION 

Dr. Samir Sinha is the director of geriatrics at Sinai Health and Univeristy Health Network.

While at the beginning of the pandemic, many older adults lost connections with grandchildren, going to community centres and other activities, Sinha said going into the third year of the pandemic, the challenge is that it just doesn’t end. 

“Especially when for so many older adults, it is those social connection that are really a part of that sense of purpose that keep you going, the ability to play with your grandkids or to be an active member in the community.”

“You can see how they have taken a massive toll on the mental health and well-being of so many older people when they have had to isolate or be isolated from others for a prolonged period of time.”

Sinha said it’s important to acknowledge that older people are missing out on experiences like younger people, milestone birthdays, as one example, which can add to the sense of loss.

Sinha said with prolonged loneliness there are heightened levels of depression and anxiety and said he’s finding people are afraid of how to re-engage with other people or concerned about getting Omicron.

“I think it’s one of those things where people are so afraid to engage that it almost perpetuates more loneliness, depression, feelings of despair.”

Sinha said it’s at a point where some people are taking on self-imposed isolation because they are not sure what to do and not sure what’s safe, which he believes creates additional anxiety. 

OLDER ADULTS AND MENTAL HEALTH 

Addis said for older adults it’s important to maintain routines, stay engaged in activities they enjoy, find opportunities for fun, and get outside if possible. 

Baycrest offers a information about depression in later adulthood and a variety of programming to ease loneliness at it’s residences and for people still living at home. 

Sinha said it’s important for older people struggling to reach out.

“When you’re not feeling great, it’s hard to make things better on your own.”

He said it’s important to have those conversations with others to figure out what can ease the isolation and people can better provide support.