Conference Coverage

COVID-19: Psychiatrists assess geriatric harm from social distancing


One of the greatest tragedies of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the failure of health policy makers to anticipate and mitigate the enormous havoc the policy of social distancing would wreak on mental health and cognitive function in older persons, speakers agreed at a webinar on COVID-19, social distancing, and its impact on social and mental health in the elderly hosted by the International Psychogeriatric Association in collaboration with INTERDEM.


“Social distancing” is a two-edged sword: It is for now and the foreseeable future the only available effective strategy for protecting against infection in the older population most vulnerable to severe forms of COVID-19. Yet social distancing also has caused many elderly – particularly those in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities – to plunge into a profound experience of loneliness, isolation, distress, feelings of abandonment, anxiety, depression, and accelerated cognitive deterioration. And this needn’t have happened, the mental health professionals asserted.

“When are we going to get rid of the term ‘social distancing?’ ” asked IPA President William E. Reichman, MD. “Many have appreciated – including the World Health Organization – that the real issue is physical distancing to prevent contagion. And physical distancing doesn’t have to mean social distancing.”

Social connectedness between elderly persons and their peers and family members can be maintained and should be emphatically encouraged during the physical distancing required by the pandemic, said Myrra Vernooij-Dassen, PhD, of Radboud University in Nigmegen, the Netherlands, and chair of INTERDEM, a pan-European network of dementia researchers.

This can be achieved using readily available technologies, including the telephone and videoconferencing, as well as by creating opportunities for supervised masked visits between a family member and an elderly loved one in outdoor courtyards or gardens within long-term care facilities. And yet, as the pandemic seized hold in many parts of the world, family members were blocked from entry to these facilities, she observed.

Impact on mental health, cognition

Dr. Vernooij-Dassen noted that studies of previous quarantine periods as well as preliminary findings during the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrate an inverse relationship between social isolation measures and cognitive functioning in the elderly.

A striking finding is that lack of social interaction is associated with incident dementia. Conversely, epidemiologic data indicate that a socially integrated lifestyle had a favorable influence on cognitive functioning and could even delay onset of dementia,” she said.

INTERDEM is backing two ongoing studies evaluating the hypothesis that interventions fostering increased social interaction among elderly individuals can delay onset of dementia or favorably affect its course. The proposed mechanism of benefit is stimulation of brain plasticity to enhance cognitive reserve.

“This is a hypothesis of hope. We know that social interaction for humans is like water to plants – we really, really need it,” she explained.

Diego de Leo, MD, PhD, emeritus professor of psychiatry and former director of the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention at Griffith University in Brisbane, was living in hard-hit Padua, Italy, during the first surge of COVID-19. He described his anecdotal experience.

“What I hear from many Italian colleagues and friends and directors of mental health services is that emergency admissions related to mental disorders declined during the first wave of the COVID pandemic. For example, not many people attended emergency departments due to suicide attempts; there was a very marked decrease in the number of suicide attempts during the worst days of the pandemic,” he said.

People with psychiatric conditions were afraid to go to the hospital because they thought they would contract the infection and die there. That’s changing now, however.

“Now there is an increased number of admissions to mental health units. A new wave. It has been a U-shaped curve. And we’re now witnessing an increasing number of fatal suicides due to persistent fears, due to people imagining that there is no more room for them, and no more future for them from a financial point of view – which is the major negative outcome of this crisis. It will be a disaster for many families,” the psychiatrist continued.

A noteworthy phenomenon in northern Italy was that, when tablets were made available to nursing home residents in an effort to enhance their connectedness to the outside world, those with dementia often became so frustrated and confused by their difficulty in using the devices that they developed a hypokinetic delirium marked by refusal to eat or leave their bed, he reported.

It’s far too early to have reliable data on suicide trends in response to the pandemic, according to Dr. de Leo. But one thing is for sure: The strategy of social distancing employed to curb COVID-19 has increased the prevalence of known risk factors for suicide in older individuals, including loneliness, anxiety, and depression; increased alcohol use; and a perception of being a burden on society. Dr. de Leo directs a foundation dedicated to helping people experiencing traumatic bereavement, and in one recent week, the foundation was contacted by eight families in the province of Padua with a recent death by suicide apparently related to fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s an unusually high spike in suicide in a province with a population of 1 million.

“People probably preferred to end the agitation, the fear, the extreme anxiety about their destiny by deciding to prematurely truncate their life. That has been reported by nursing staff,” he said.

The Italian government has determined that, to date, 36% of all COVID-related deaths have occurred in people aged 85 years or older, and 84% of deaths were in individuals aged at least 70 years. And in Milan and the surrounding province of Lombardy, it’s estimated that COVID-19 has taken the lives of 25% of all nursing home residents. The North American experience has been uncomfortably similar.

“Almost 80% of COVID deaths in Canada have occurred in congregate settings,” observed Dr. Reichman, professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, and president and CEO of Baycrest Health Sciences, a geriatric research center.

“Certainly, the appalling number of deaths in nursing homes is the No. 1 horror of the pandemic,” declared Carmelle Peisah, MBBS, MD, a psychiatrist at the University of New South Wales in Kensington, Australia.


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