Today is World Mental Health Day! Pioneered in 1992 by the World Health Organization (WHO), this day is an international opportunity to raise global education, awareness, support, and advocacy for those living with anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. This year, the WHO is honoring World Mental Health Day as an opportunity to rekindle efforts to protect and improve mental health, especially after the devastating impacts of COVID-19.
With widespread shutdowns occurring at the beginning of the pandemic, many civilians were faced with disruptions in their day-to-day routines, including our community’s loved ones with dementia and their caregivers. While social distancing was enacted to minimize the rapid spread of COVID-19, detachment from face-to-face and person-to-person interactions often meant losing out on connections with dear friends and loved ones.
Now, more than ever, it is important to speak on the devastating impacts of the pandemic on the mental health of aging adults with dementia and why rebuilding connections is important for enhancing their quality of life.
Dementia Carries A Heavy Impact On Emotional Awareness
We know that as dementia progresses, a person’s ability to communicate becomes hindered and thus is raised a barrier between creating and sustaining meaningful relationships. Our brains are one of our greatest muscles, responsible for so much of what our bodies and minds can do. And, like many other muscles in our bodies, we have to exercise our brains by keeping them engaged through social interactions.
This is why creating and fostering meaningful connections and relationships is vital for enhancing the quality of life for seniors and older adults with dementia – many of whom already feel isolated by their disease and carry the heavy emotional impact of their diagnosis. Dementia ranges so widely in terms of symptoms and changes, with some loved ones experiencing a whiplash of new thoughts and feelings while others might struggle to understand their emotions or some of what is happening.
Having dementia often means, in some perspectives, losing a sense of purpose and self. But, at the end of the day, every person with dementia still craves a feeling of closeness and connection to the world around them, and fostering close relationships can make a world of difference in their mental health.
Their Feelings Are Real, No Matter The Diagnosis
The critical thing to remember here is that every person with dementia still feels their emotions, even if they do not know how to express them outwardly. No matter what, the thoughts and feelings that they have on the inside are still very much real.
One of Oakwood’s members, Kate, once shared her feelings of frustration with the challenges she lives through, many of which encompass her inability to speak at times. She admitted that her diagnosis and difficulties with communication had taken a significant toll on her self-esteem.
Over time, she found that people would either talk to her and not understand why she isn’t answering or choose not to talk to her at all for fear of not knowing how to interact with her. She spoke these feelings to Oakwood’s engagement specialist, Sammy, who recalled this moment by saying:
“My heart broke for her when I saw the pain behind her eyes as she tried to express herself through stuttered, half-formed sentences – with body language that screamed frustration and sadness. After our conversation, I gave her a big hug, and with a warm gaze and a smile, she said to me, ‘Me too.’ I wanted to share her story to highlight the impact of equality when interacting with anyone who has a neurological disorder. They deserve real connection and a listening ear, even when their words don’t come out.”
Jumping Back Into Action To Help Seniors Stay Connected!
The reality is that loneliness and depression can quickly seep in when there is a lack of opportunity to build meaningful connections, and the pandemic has certainly exasperated some of the risk factors of declining mental health for older adults with dementia tenfold. In an article for LeadingAge, President and CEO of Oakwood Creative Care, Sherri Friend, stated how devastating the impacts of isolation at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic were for members of Oakwood’s Day Clubs, especially after having to close temporarily:
We began doing virtual sessions, and we sent home activity kits and did one-on-one virtual activities with family members. But our folks were so used to the routine of being able to come in and have purpose and meaning in their lives; they began declining pretty rapidly.
Unfortunately, two-thirds of Oakwood’s members passed away during the time the clubs were closed, though only a handful died of COVID-19, and many others were placed in nursing homes.
Since then, Oakwood Creative Care has not only reopened its doors to the Day Clubs but also acquired its third location, The Perfect Place, and introduced its newest initiative, The Dementia Hub. With new rules and regulations routinely updated with the safety of all members first in mind, Oakwood has remained a warm place of comfort where members like Kate can come to foster new interests, talents, and, most importantly, friendships.
In a separate interview, Sherri recalled how important it was to get the Day Clubs reopened at the height of the pandemic, thinking of Oakwood’s members in stating, “They have built the communities that we enjoy every day. It’s our duty and honor to make the last years of their life the best they can be.”
Did You Know?
Oakwood Creative Care is bringing back the JOY in aging! We believe a diagnosis should not have to define your life. Instead, we have devoted our mission to reigniting hope for caregivers and older adults with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other age-related challenges. Click the button below to learn more about how we do this through our research-based, cutting-edge, creative care model found at each of our Day Clubs.