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Pandemic poses challenges to mental health field

“It is our responsibility to connect, protect and for everyone in the community to unite around what we can do for our aging population,” Matthew Groff, licensed clinical social worker and UPMC outpatient behavioral specialist, said.

Groff explained to the Sun-Gazette that residents in long-term care facilities or nursing homes, even outside of COVID-19, are at much higher risks for negative impacts on their mental health.

“There is already a disconnect from family members,” he said. “There is already a level of isolation that they are feeling.”

“But with COVID-19, visitation is being cancelled, there are more restrictions…isolation for those patients is going to increase tenfold. Increased risk of depression because of already isolating factors, but also risk of their medical conditions worsening.”

“It is like this vicious cycle, we as human beings, we are social creatures. When you take that away you are going to have significant consequences in terms of mental health.”

He added that mental health impact and added stressors like not being able to be in physical contact with family members and friends, communal dining and regular community programs could possibly complicate their health further.

“If a person is under those conditions for extended periods of time, helplessness and hopelessness it will trigger a response in them,” he said. “Lower their immune system, inflammation can go up, biological conditions that will further compromise someone.”

With COVID-19 stress added to the situation, causing lingering anxiety about family members or even themselves getting the virus, other complications can arise including severe mental health issues like increased General Anxiety Disorder, depressive episodes and panic disorders, Groff said.

From a familial perspective, Groff added that they too, will have a “high level of uncertainty and anxiety”.

“It would be very wise to seek counseling themselves,” he added. “Having to hear about positive cases in the nursing homes of loved ones while only being able to speak to them via technology is going to be really devastating.”

Carl F. McDaniel’s, Loyalsock Township resident, wife is in Manor Care North which has caused some negative impact in his life, but also his wife’s.

“It’s hard,” he said. “It’s always on my mind.”

“There is going to be anticipatory grief, what if something happens,” Groff added. “There will be anger, frustration, anxiety, depressive symptoms…until there is some certainty about their loved ones. That in itself is going to cause mental health concerns.”

“I think there are ways that we can get creative to help our patients,” Groff continued. “For each facility, a good thing to start would be a tutoring program for technology. There is a way nursing facilities can help a resident use facetime, set up video call programs.”

He also added that finding socially distant ways to do regular programing like bingo can also help reduce feelings of loneliness.

Close to two years ago, Carl’s wife was put in Manor Care after a fall at their home. Carl has been working for six months to bring his wife home and now the office of Independent Living will be helping him by putting in a ramp, hospital bed and helping the family find an in-home nurse or aid to be of service.

Before the COVID-19 shut down, Carl could visit his wife at his own leisure. With the pandemic, visitation has drastically changed.

“All I can do is talk to her on the phone…I can’t hug my wife. I can’t see my wife,” he said.

The two have been married since November of 1946 and Carl said that their relationship remains strong through a multitude of daily phone calls and waiting for the day that his wife returns home.

“Being able to continue to provide support and to help them (patients) have outlets,” Groff said. “There are a lot of mindfulness strategies that are of use. Finding them and helping the patients engage in doing things within the facility that bring them joy.”

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