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Topic: COVID-19 Behavioral health and Older Adults

Question: What impact is the COVID-19 pandemic having on our older adult (65+ years old) population, and what are some things that can be done to help this population cope with behavioral health problems?

Robert Olson, M.D.
Geriatric Psychiatry, Sanford Health; Residency Program Director, University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences

Expert's Response

We are all aware that older adults are a particularly vulnerable population when it comes to COVID-19. Unfortunately, those older adults living in assisted living centers and nursing homes have been deeply impacted by the pandemic. For older adults in assisted living centers, the COVID-19 pandemic has fostered greater feelings of loneliness, as family members and friends are no longer able to freely come visit. For individuals living in nursing homes, and particularly for those with dementia, the loss of a daily routine and schedule of activities has resulted in an increased number of behavioral disturbances (such as aggression and confusion).

Much of the work being done to improve the behavioral health of older adults requires participation from the direct caregivers (such as staff) and the family. The following are suggestions for how to help older adults cope with the effects of the pandemic:

We recommend that people reach out for professional help if their symptoms are:

  • Find creative ways to implement safe daily structure and activities. Although most older adults are now confined to their rooms, staff members may find ways to get residents engaged in everyday tasks. For example, one local nursing home is working with female residents, who were once homemakers, to help with small tasks, such as folding towels.
  • Talk about regular (“normal”) topics. We all feel the pull to discuss current topics related to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, for older adults, these discussions may be particularly stressful. Instead, focus on having conversations about everyday activities, such as what the grandkids are learning in school.
  • Create picture collages. Pictures are a great way to help older adults engage with the family, even if they aren’t able to be with the family in person. A large collection of pictures can be displayed in the room and allow for easy viewing. For older adults with dementia, consider labelling the pictures in the collage so the individual can better identify who they are looking at. Also consider including old pictures in the collage – older adults with dementia have an easier time reminiscing over older memories rather than newer ones.

I recommend reading these resources for more information:

  • The Alzheimer’s Association has wonderful resources for caregivers and family of persons with dementia. Visit
  • Read the book “The 36-hour Day” by Nacy Mace and Peter Rabins. It has been helpful to families of persons with dementia.
  • Memory Café of the Red River Valley – contact Deb Kaul at (218) 790-1218 for more information.