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Navigating a pandemic, war and more with older adults

Leslie Mantrone, LMSW

As COVID-19 is lifting in many parts of the world, other parts have become embroiled in deadly conflict. The Russian aggression against Ukraine has many people unnerved, and older adults are no exception. In fact, given their age and the life events they have experienced – including World War II and the Holocaust – many older adults have firsthand experience with deadly war and conflict. How best to support older adults during this time?

Take your lead from the older adult. Not everyone experiences historical events in the same way. Some older adults may appear unaware of world events and focus only on their day-to-day lives. This hyper-focus on the present moment may limit their cognition, as in cases of people with dementia. However, focusing on the here-and-now can be an effective coping device for others, including those who have lived through war and political conflict. Best to follow your loved one’s lead and speak about the topic only if invited explicitly into the conversation by the older adult.

Be mindful of the negative impact of television news. Graphic visual images of war and conflict can be alarming and anxiety-provoking. For some older adults, especially those with cognitive disabilities and dementia, disturbing images can lead to subtle or pronounced mood and behavioral changes. These reactions can manifest as sleep disturbances or such behaviors as crying, helplessness and lethargy, restlessness, agitation, unusual or excessive cynicism, or anger. Notice if a loved one exhibits behavior changes after participating in a discussion or watching television news programs. If mood and behavior changes persist for two weeks or more, consider speaking with the older adult about your observations and concerns. If concerns continue, reach out to their primary care physician or other trusted medical professional for advice.

Don’t assume that military veterans enjoy discussing geopolitical events and dissecting war strategy. Just because someone has served in the military does not necessarily mean they are interested in an in-depth analysis of every war or political conflict. Anyone who has survived armed conflict knows the veracity of the expression “War is hell.” For some, the scars are invisible but run deep. Take your cue from the older adult – respond to but don’t initiate discussion about war and geopolitical conflicts.

Be there for older adults who want to talk. Be sensitive to the reality that your loved one, who you once may have relied on for information, comfort and reassurance, may no longer have the willingness or capacity to function in that role for you today. Focus on them and their concerns. Be honest in your feedback and seek to avoid dwelling on the negative and the unknown. Encourage your older adult to get sufficient sleep, eat regularly, stay hydrated, take prescribed medications, maintain routines and limit news consumption, especially if they feel overwhelmed by world events. Consider reaching out to a trusted medical professional if you or your older adult experience distress or behavior changes lasting longer than two weeks.


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