Older adults have proven to be “quite resilient” during the pandemic despite challenges specific to their age group, according to Dr. Elizabeth Necka from the National Institute on Aging.
Necka joined host Katie Smith on one of Montgomery County’s most popular cable shows to discuss the institute’s latest research on older adults’ mental health, as well as to share tips on staying socially connected.
50+ in Montgomery County – previously known as Seniors Today – airs monthly and features special guests from a range of specialties who discuss topics related to the health and well-being of older residents.
This month’s episode is the first to air after the show’s recent rebranding. Eddie Rivas, vice president of the county’s Commission on Aging, prefaced the episode with an explanation of the revamp, including a new name, logo and format.
Rivas told Smith the decision came down to the term “senior” being what he called “pejorative.” He said the word often carries hurtful or dismissive connotations for older adults, adding, “We thought it was time for a change.”
The episode aired on the first day of National Depression and Health Screening Month. As the delta variant drives a surge in Maryland’s COVID-19 cases and the need for social restrictions continues, residents describe the ongoing effects on their mental well-being.
“We survived, but a lot of damage has been done,” said 76-year-old Ahja in an interview at North Potomac Senior Center.
Ahja said her husband’s memory has deteriorated due to lack of social connections during the pandemic to the point where his doctor is now concerned. Her husband wants to teach Japanese at their local church, but she fears his memory loss will prevent him from teaching effectively.
Ahja asked The Wash to withhold her last name due to concerns about online identity theft, which the FBI reports is a particularly high risk for her age group.
Despite being especially vulnerable to COVID-19 health risks, Necka said the NIA’s research shows that older adults’ mental health is less likely to be impacted by policies like mask mandates and quarantines.
One of the main reasons for this resilience is older adults’ tendency to “find the silver lining,” Necka said. She explained that these adults also tend to focus on close relationships rather than relying on larger social gatherings and casual connections.
Resident Lottie Garfinkel said that at 67 years old, she finds it more important than ever to stay connected with loved ones. She encouraged younger adults to “be proactive” in reaching out regularly to 50+ friends and family.
Josi Makon, the county’s Older Adult Behavioral Health Coordinator, said while the rest of the world relies on technology to maintain these connections during the lockdown, older adults face a unique challenge: they tend to be far less comfortable using the internet.
This discomfort creates a “double burden of social and digital exclusion,” according to a recent study Necka cited. The study found that while older residents often feel left out in social gatherings, they also tend to have difficulty connecting through digital means.
“Whether this is because of access, whether because of unfamiliarity with technology — I think there’s a lot of contributing factors,” Necka said.
One way the county is trying to combat this digital disconnect is by partnering with Senior Planet Montgomery, a program funded by the Department of Technology Services that provides free classes to older residents via Zoom.
These classes aim to educate attendees on how to make technology a “lifelong way to connect with others and improve daily life,” according to Regional Director Shivali Haribhakti. She said the program offer dozens of classes, listed monthly on its website.
Rather than relying on technology for socialization, Montgomery’s 50+ residents prefer finding ways to keep in touch safely through outdoor activities.
Resident Shane Wu emphasized the importance of physical activity when it comes to mental health. He said he plays volleyball with a group of friends five days a week, two hours each day. “We share each others’ feelings,” he said, smiling. “We laugh and play.”
Sitting beside him, Ed Hsu agreed, adding that he plays ping-pong for a couple of hours every day to stay active and socially engaged.
If people continue to cooperate with local guidelines and listen to medical professionals, Hsu said he believes before too long, “we can really get back to normal life.”