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Mental health needs to be part of the conversation about long-term care.

17 Sep 2020 4:43 PM | Anonymous

Technology has been helpful in keeping people connected in long-term care. But is this enough to offset the trauma caused by the pandemic? Photo: Georg Arthur Pflueger, Unsplash.com

Long-term care is one of the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic. This much is revealed by the high death toll in long-term care homes, the lack of proper action from many of these places, and—as was the case west of Montreal—the literal abandonment of long-term care residents.

Amid the chaos is a second tragedy that few have talked about so far: residents’ mental health. As Canada re-opens, this issue should not be left behind.

For a long time, it has been an open secret that loneliness, social isolation, depression, and anxiety are common among older adults in long-term care homes. In 2010, for example, 44 per cent of older adults living in long-term care had a diagnosis or reported symptoms of depression, according to a report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information. 

The reality is, if you are in long-term care, you may be more at risk of psychological distress. And there are some driving factors that can put certain older adults more at risk than others. 

One such factor is disability. Many people are admitted to long-term care when they are physically or mentally unable to take care of themselves. This loss of independence, depending on their ability to cope, can lead to depression.

Another is change in environment. When a person transitions to long-term care, they might be stressed or anxious about what the future holds for them. This isn’t helped by the fact that many long-term care homes resemble hospitals more than actual homes—which can lead to further feelings of alienation and discomfort among residents. 

And yet another factor, and perhaps the most tragic, is the notion of grief at the loss of loved ones. Grief is already enough to put a person’s mental health at risk. But combined with disability and living in an unfamiliar environment, it can further set the stage for anxiety and depression.

In May of this year, long-term care residents made up 81 per cent of all COVID-19 related deaths. It’s therefore not hard to imagine that rates of depression and anxiety would increase among the survivors. 

Surviving residents bore witness to the death of their friends and neighbors, all while coping with their own feelings of isolation and uncertainty related to the virus. Going forward we might expect residents to be consumed by a whole new level of grief and trauma.

On the bright side, there are many things we have done to stay connected to residents during the pandemic. Children have organized letter-writing campaigns, volunteers are teaching residents to do video calls, families visit and have played music outside of residents’ windows.

These efforts are good, but they should only be a start. There remains a dire need to address the mental health of long-term care residents, especially as the trauma of the pandemic sets in.

As Canada re-opens, long-term care must stay on the agenda. And mental health needs to be part of the conversation. 

A good place to start is to give experts in geriatric psychology a platform to bring forward recommendations and have a serious discussion about the mental health of residents in long-term care.

Another would be to take a serious look at how we structure our long-term care services and evaluate whether we are truly meeting residents’ emotional needs. 

We have all been shocked by the pandemic, some more than others. 

In long-term care, we’re learning that it is one thing to survive, but it is another to actually feel alive.

By: Eric Dicaire

Eric Dicaire is a communicator and thinker based out of Ottawa, Canada. He currently holds a Master’s degree in Communication from the University of Ottawa, and is the communications coordinator for the Bruyère Research Institute. He enjoys examining how people think about and interact with media, and how these interactions influence public discourse in Canada. He aspires to be a life-long learner, looking for new ways to challenge his own biases and exploring new concepts and ideas.


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