Preparing for the journey out of lockdown could be seen as an adventure. This is creating a feeling of excitement and anticipation for many, but not for all. As we move through the early stages of our journey out of lockdown, my thoughts have turned to the older generation and the changes that have occurred specifically for them over the past year. There can be feelings of anxiety and caution due to the personal changes that they have been experiencing.
When you live with a close elderly relative you don’t always notice the subtle and gradual changes. However, when we have a timeline for reference, as we have had with Covid, we have a clear measure for making comparisons. For me, this has meant that deterioration has been more noticeable. Working from home has increased my awareness of daily living issues for my mum in relation to what she finds more difficult to do independently and the length of time it takes to carry out simple tasks.
Prior to COVID-19, going out daily and having a purpose in life was important to her. Travelling on a bus, train or tram and going out alone gave a feeling of independence. Shopping placed importance on making choices and encouraged the need to plan and make decisions. Human contact is what keeps us as a participant in this world and, even if we don’t realise it, we all need human contact. This contact can be as an observer, like when we are sitting on a bus amongst strangers, having a coffee and people watching or listening in to other people’s conversations – this offers us a connection to society and other human beings. It is these connections that can make us feel like we belong to something bigger than ourselves. Having routines and meeting a friend or relative regularly gave structure to my mum’s week and something to look forward to and to talk about. I feel that not being able to do these things has meant a decrease in physical ability as well as having had a negative impact on her mental health.
We know already that there can be a higher risk of mental health problems in the older generation and I am fearful of the increased impact lockdown has had on them. Lack of routine, the days merging into one another and there being no difference between weekdays and weekends has been confusing for me too. My mum has only been able to go out into the greenhouse and garden or for a short walk, and this has not only affected her physical ability to walk and her stamina but has also affected her self-confidence. Fears around catching COVID-19 have led to anxiety about having people into the garden or house and going out to the local shop or supermarkets. This very real anxiety has increased at the same time as so many everyday activities have not been possible. This has been going on for so long and may not even be possible again. It has been tough not being able to see grandchildren and great-grandchildren and having to celebrate their development and achievements through photos, and from a distance, has felt unnatural. Using FaceTime and Zoom calls have just felt like one technological step too far. Being active, having routines and a purpose in life can also keep the mind active and I wonder if this lack of routine has affected clarity of thought and impacted memory function. Having too much time to think may have led to reminiscing and feelings of loss, possibly leading to the realisation that life is so volatile and precious.
Although it can be challenging, we sometimes have to accept that change is going to happen to our loved ones and we should focus on trying to embrace it for ourselves and for them. We should strive to empower elderly people to regain their sense of belonging and purpose in life and support them to find pleasure from things that bring them joy – even if it is in a different way. With encouragement, they should do as much as they can but also feel able to accept support where it is needed. I hope that, with support, my mum’s anxiety will reduce, her confidence will increase and she will regain that sense of belonging and feel like she has a purpose again. It’s important to recognise that the new normal is what we have to work with right now and that the old normal may not be possible again in the foreseeable future.
Some of that change is starting to happen and one of the things that has helped my mum is that she is spending more time in the garden and greenhouse. Watching seeds grow and new life emerging can give a true feeling of hope. The Royal Horticultural Society says that where anxiety, bereavement and stress can be devastating for someone, ‘gardening has come to the rescue for many people confronted by these challenges’. I am hopeful that as the better weather comes and more time can be spent in the garden, that planting seeds and growing vegetables will bring some positivity and pleasure into my mum’s life again.
My mum has always had an interest in music and I want that to be a connection that we can keep moving forward. Playlist for Life, who are a music and dementia charity, advocate that ‘listening to music that is personally meaningful has many psychological benefits’ and, although my mum is not at this point as yet, they say it can improve the lives of those living with dementia. Music can also help to reduce anxiety and lift people’s mood. A playlist is something I would like to do moving forward as a shared experience with my mum so that if things deteriorate for her in future, we will still have those connections.
The last year has been tough but by moving forward with a positive attitude I hope I can embrace the changes my mum has experienced with compassion, care and a pocket full of patience.