Loneliness, loss, and fading resilience in the tarnished golden years: languishing with loss of purpose

The isolation felt by people in quarantine can leave the average person feeling numb and emotionally languished. Recently, I provided a zoom conference on the psychological impact of the coronavirus in November 2021 from my office at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital in Westborough, MA. It was well attended, largely by people who are psychologically minded and aware of the points I endeavored to make. My target audience was the people who were struggling and vulnerable to decreased coping during covid-19 recovery. I am unsure we hit the mark I was hoping for with the target audience.  The fallout in mental health from the coronavirus is real and it is now recognized as a public health menace among recovering adults. It is now being seen in children and adolescents with growing concern. Just like younger patients, loneliness and social isolation in older Americans are serious public health concerns putting them at risk for dementia and other serious health conditions including failure to thrive, sepsis, malnutrition, addiction, and mental illness according to a CDC report. For many individuals in quarantine, the nightly happy hour started earlier and earlier raising the specter of worsening substance abuse and addiction. The liquor stores were soon to be considered essential services and package delivery became a common source of re-supply. The impact of isolation, emotional loss, and social detachment undermines public and behavioral well-being across the life span. It is a co-occuring illness among illnesses afflicting millions. I see it in my own family as nerves are frayed now almost 2 years in – first noted in the blog post published in May, 2020 (Sefton, M.). In this fourth wave of the virus called the Omicron variant, people are tired of hearing about social distancing, mask mandates, and rising infection numbers. I see it every day.

I have worked with older clients for over 25 years first as a post doctoral fellow at Boston City Hospital – now BUMC. Long before the pandemic, my work at Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital has been to provide support and direct service to patients’ suffering from debility associated with decline in physical health along with the psychosocial needs and changes. All too often, this includes feelings of loss of control and sadness that is palpable in our short conversations. Many seniors feel invisible and the virus exacerbates these feelings. Declining health further instills the loss of purpose and amplifies the stigma of being seemingly infirm. The lack of purpose germinates from the passing of a spouse, close friends who move or have died, food and financial insecurity. It precedes a death wish and it’s associated demoralization. My mother was infected with the coronavirus in mid-April 2020 before the vaccine was introduced. She lived in the same nursing facility where I lost my 93-year old aunt in the first wave of the virus in May, 2020. My mother survived the virus but it has taken a significant toll on her physical and cognitive well-being. We were not permitted to see my mother during her illness and my aunt was alone on May 1 when she succumbed to the virus.

Trauma informed therapy refers to the critical understanding of one’s emotional history and supports the model of early traumatic experience being one underpinning of many mental health outcomes and threatened resilience later in life. These kinds of experiences have an impact on people who have had loved ones die while in lock down across the country and can engender guilt and helplessness. Often, singular front line medical staff are alone with patients who succumbed to the virus – sometimes holding the fading grip of another disappearing life. This heroic act of empathy happens without fanfare or even a moment to process its importance and acknowledgment of the person’s passing.

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