Home Alone? Older Adults with ADHD are Staying Safe but Really Lonely
We all know it’s #SaferAtHome. But after weeks and weeks, the loneliness of social distancing is taking a toll on seniors with ADHD who thrive on personal interaction and stimulation. Here, an expert offers coping advice.
This pandemic does not discriminate. But it does disproportionately impact the health and wellbeing of older people, and those with pre-existing conditions like asthma, diabetes, and heart disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), eight out of 10 deaths reported in the U.S. have been in adults age 65 and older.1 (Those over 80 with chronic health conditions such as diabetes and heart or lung diseases are at greatest risk.)
“Many older adults with ADHD are really struggling; they tend to be worriers by nature and now a really scary worry is on their minds,” says Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., the founder and clinical director of The Chesapeake Center for ADHD, Learning and Behavioral Health, one of the largest and oldest ADHD specialty clinics in the US. “They have more anxiety about their health vulnerabilities to begin with, and more fear of exposure to the virus. They’re afraid to go outside or to the store and many are canceling needed appointments with doctors and therapists.”
Compounding this worrisome problem is the emotional hypersensitivity and intensity that accompanies ADHD. “Adults with ADHD have a lifetime of some degree of struggle behind them, so they already have a stress load coming into the pandemic that others do not,” says Nadeau, who is compiling research on older adults with ADHD, who are more likely to live alone due to higher-than-average divorce rates.
“When you live alone like many of the senior women I counsel, support mostly comes from family, and so much of that regular family contact — and the rituals that give value and meaning to their lives — has been curtailed,” Nadeau explains. Regular contact with their children and grandchildren brings not only meaning but structure to their lives. “Without it, they feel lost. One older woman I know is so distraught she goes to bed at 6 p.m. because she can’t think of anything else to do.”
In an effort to help her clients and others who are struggling during this uniquely challenging time, Nadeau hosts weekly support meetings — and attendance has been steadily growing. “They get so much out of small doses of social connection in my Zoom room,” Nadeau says, adding that virtual meetings are not a universal fix. “Technology is a great way to connect, but many aren’t tech-savvy and don’t have the equipment to participate in Zoom conferencing. A senior I work with told me her computer is old and doesn’t have a camera, but aside from that she can’t figure out how to use Zoom anyway.”
Nadeau suspects that loneliness is triggering depression for many people. And depression, if left untreated, can become quite serious. The most vulnerable group, according to Nadeau, is people on the verge of retirement or the newly retired. The potential economic consequences of the pandemic are making them panic. “One older gentleman who came to my support group told me he spent 40 years investing very carefully for retirement and, in just 40 days, those careful investments have been destroyed. It’s just heartbreaking.”
How to Fight Loneliness, the Silent Pandemic
Loneliness can have significant mental health consequences because human connection is important for our well-being, Nadeau says. “Navigating social isolation and financial woes when you have weak executive functions isn’t easy, but there are measures you can take to help yourself feel better.” Here, some ideas:
#1. Find a way to move every day.
With senior centers closed, a lack of regular exercise can have deleterious effects on mental health because the body and the mind are so closely connected. If the weather is lousy and you can’t go for a walk outside, walk indoors. Take some laps around your apartment or house. Go up and down the stairs a few times or check out the gentle movements of Tai Chi, an ancient, slow-motion martial arts regime that improves balance and strength and is popular with many older adults.
#2. Explore your family’s lineage and make a family tree.
Tons of tutorials exist online. We found a YouTube video with instructions for putting one together using a Google spreadsheet that can be easily shared with remote family members. Both popular ancestry websites — 23andme and Ancestry.com — offer free family tree programs to get you started.
#3. Put pen to paper.
Write an old-fashioned letter to a family member who is on your mind. These days, a handwritten message is a very special and unique way to send love. Ditto for phone calls. Instead of texting, initiate a phone call to a loved one and enjoy an actual conversation.
#4. Play an online version of a favorite board game.
Old standbys like Scrabble and Canasta have online versions that enable several players to participate remotely. Nadeau said a support group member recently recommended Settlers of Catan. “She’s playing it with three generations of family members and says it’s great fun for players of all ages and it’s easy to learn, too.” If you like crossword puzzles, check out Words with Friends, an online game that boosts your word skills and can be played with a group or solo.
#5. Teach a neighbor, friend, or grandchild how to make a favorite dish.
“Another support group member taught her 12-year-old granddaughter how to make traditional dishes for the family’s Passover Seder meal. “The granddaughter put the phone on the counter and worked in the kitchen as she listened to her grandmother. It was a wonderful, remote way to connect.
#6. Connect through live music.
If family members play an instrument or like to sing, ask them to perform a “coronavirus concert.” “Phone conversations with children can be awkward because they simply don’t know how to carry on a conversation on the phone with an older adult and a lot of older people don’t either,” Nadeau explains. “If a family member plays an instrument or likes to sing, that can be a wonderful way to connect with them.”
#7. Find a local support group.
Look into local Facebook groups or connect to Nadeau’s free online support group for seniors every Tuesday at 11 a.m. Eastern Time. Click this link to join: https://zoom.us/j/189841533
How to Cope with Financial Distress
The stress associated with uncertainty is an enormous burden for all of us. “Loss will be inevitable and coping with loss — whether financial or personal — involves a grieving process,” Nadeau says. “To move forward, you must accept that the future you thought you had is gone. If you’re at the beginning of your retirement, you may be able to recover. In the meantime, find meaning in your new reality. Look at what you have — not what you don’t have — and try to come to a calm acceptance.”
Gratitude also helps. Nadeau recommends making a list of everything in your life for which you’re grateful — friends, family, pets, happy memories, a place to live, food to eat, etc. “The pandemic can be an opportunity for growth; a time to rethink what really matters. For many, the answer is family and friends.”
More Resources for Older Adults with ADHD
- The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) has put together a comprehensive, 22-page guide with information to help people struggling financially and who are in need of support for health care and housing as well as stress and anxiety. Visit NAMI’s website for more information.
- Check out Facebook’s Coronavirus Self-Care and Mental health Support Group.
- Visit the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). The website has good information for those struggling with depression.
- Alcohol use often increases in people who are depressed. The National Council on Aging has information about behavioral health programs for seniors including the prevention and management of alcohol problems.
- Better Health While Aging can tell you what to expect if you are hospitalized with the virus.
- The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has a state by state list of resources, “How to Find Coronavirus Help in Your State” and other COVID19-specific information.
1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coronavirus Disease 2019. Older Adults. Accessed April 21, 2019.
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Updated on January 24, 2021