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Social Isolation and Depression: Making the Connection to Help Your Loved One

        Paige Hector, LMSW, a clinical educator/consultant and a member of the Caring for the Ages editorial advisory board, takes a look at the connection between social isolation and depression.
        During the COVID-19 pandemic, a nursing home resident shared with her doctor that she didn’t have anything to live for. The inability to see her children and grandchildren was almost too much for her to bear. There is no question that social isolation and loneliness during the pandemic have contributed significantly to an increased risk of developing depression. While the vaccine is enabling facilities to lift some visitation restrictions, these depressive symptoms won’t just disappear. It’s important to understand how a year of social isolation may have affected your loved one and contributed to their mood and quality of life.
        Social isolation can significantly increase someone’s risk of premature death or dementia. Social isolation can lead to loneliness, and this is associated with higher depression, anxiety, and suicide rates.

        Depression Won’t Just Disappear

        It’s important to realize that depression isn’t something that simply goes away by itself. Even as the pandemic restrictions ease and you can spend more time with your loved one, he or she may feel less lonely but still be depressed. Depression is a real illness, and most people who experience depression need some treatment to get better. They can’t just “cheer up” or “be positive.”
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        There is no question that social isolation and loneliness during the pandemic have contributed significantly to an increased risk of developing depression.
        Credit: Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
        Recognizing depression may not be easy. For instance, your loved one will be happy to see you when you are able to visit, so you may not think he or she is depressed. In truth, obvious sadness is not the main symptom for many older adults. Because some people are embarrassed or ashamed of their feelings, they will try to hide them. They will put on a happy face for others.
        Watch for more subtle signs of depression: trouble sleeping, irritability or grumpiness, loss of appetite, confusion or attention problems, or lack of interest in favorite activities. Report any issues you observe to a staff member or practitioner.

        Addressing Depression

        If your loved one is showing signs of depression, assessment and personalized interventions are essential. The interdisciplinary team will work with you and your loved one to determine the best course of action. This may or may not include medications. There are both pharmacological treatments and psychosocial interventions that may be beneficial. The key is developing a care plan based on your loved one’s specific needs, preferences, and goals.
        It will be important for the facility staff to know your loved one as an individual. Some questions that can help determine how people view social isolation and what efforts might ease their loneliness during isolation or a quarantine include:
        • What sustains you during difficult times?
        • What makes a good day for you?
        • What are your stories of resilience?
        • What are some of the ways that you deal with painful feelings?
        • What is most important to you right now?
        Even family members shouldn’t assume they know the answers to these questions.
        We can’t predict when a period of quarantine or isolation may be necessary, but we can do things to ease the pain of isolation that contributes to depression. Your practitioner and the care team at your loved one’s facility can work with you to address the challenges.

        Questions to Ask Your Practitioner

        • How do I know if my loved one has depression?
        • How might social isolation from the pandemic impact my loved one’s mood?
        • How can I help ease the effects of loneliness that may negatively impact my loved one’s mental health?

        What You Can Do

        • Collaborate with the facility’s staff to ensure your loved ones have access to things they enjoy and will bring comfort during a quarantine or isolation.
        • Ask about your loved ones’ feelings about their experience with isolation and appreciate that expressions of sadness and anger are natural and can be expected.
        • Watch for signs of depression during video conferences, window visits, or in-person get-togethers with your loved ones. Report any concerns to the staff or your practitioner.

        For More Information

        • “Depression Associated with Loneliness and Isolation Should Not Go Untreated,” ProHealth Care, May 26, 2020; https://bit.ly/3wYSRVp
        • “The Link Between Social Isolation and Depression,” D’Amore Mental Health, Aug. 3, 2020; https://bit.ly/3afezed