During the COVID-19 pandemic, much of the focus of families, and health departments, across the country have involved keeping the greatest generation safe from a disease that targets the oldest among us with cruel severity.

Many assisted living facilities changed visiting protocols, or eliminated them entirely.

The isolation, and quarantining, of America's elderly populations have had dyer consequences on their mental health and routine-based lifestyles, said Maria Balintona, a licensed clinical social worker at Essentia Health in Fargo.

"We've had to change the way we dress, we put on a mask, we change the way we live our lives physically, but we've also had to change how we live our lives emotionally," said Balintona. "We're not interacting with people the way we normally do, we're not able to go about our activities of daily living in any normal manner. We've changed the ways in which we socialize, a lot of the elderly are also afraid for their own physical health, so we've got the physical strains, so it's a combination of a multitude of things that created physical strain, but at the same time, a lot of emotional strain, they've gone hand-in-hand together."

In the summer of 2020, Medicare polled more than 10 million Medicare beneficiaries over age 65 and discovered 46% of their respondents reported having more stress than they normal do. Additionally, 37% of surveyed recipients felt less connected and socially isolated.

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"Overall, individuals who had preexisting medical conditions, 48% of them felt an increased level of depression in mental health issues," said Balintona, during an interview with Lakes Area Television.

She also said, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, normally, only 20% of those elderly populations with a preexisting medical condition experience mental health issues, like depression; a 28% increase from pre-pandemic survey responses.

"It takes a toll because the people that you would normally turn to, and talk to, you're ending up talking more to yourself and you may not always have the best ideas, in terms of if you're stressed or strained," said Balintona. "You're also not getting external feedback about what's going on in the world, what's happening locally...it becomes about, how can I be creative to still get my emotional, and social needs met, in a very different manner in what I typically have?"

In order to combat the rise in mental health issues with the elderly, Balintona said she advises family members to reach out more often, even if it's virtually.

She recommends trying to grow new routines and hobbies with elder family members in an effort to connect them more with the outside world. Book clubs, online games, or even scheduling exercise and nap times can help elderly populations adjust to being more isolated than normal. She described small adjustments can make a big difference in the mental health of an elder.

"Getting enough sunlight, I mean it can be simple stuff," she said. "Setting up a routine could help them feel that there is some consistency in their days."

She also recommends elderly people take time to savor those positive moments during their days and encouraging journaling about those positive aspects can have an impact in their mental health.

"Journaling can help us get an idea into what our internal dialog is," said Balintona. "It can help us get those thoughts into a different place and help us connect with ourselves."

She also pointed out that putting those experiences down on paper can show us if we are being supportive, and positive, about ourselves and, if we see negative personal reflections, then shifts may need to be made.

Trying to spot mental health problems in elderly family members can be challenging, she said, but noticing changes in their personal care, a low energy level, sleeping a lot more and, not getting up and ready in the morning can be an initial warning sign.

"If, when you call them, they are more socially withdrawn, or they are not even attempting to socially engage in places that they normally would, that would be something I would have you look for," said Balintona. "If they have more memory issues than normal, or they seem to be in more of a fog, and that's a change for them, that would be a warning sign."

If you, or someone you know, is dealing with mental health strain, be sure to check out Becker County Health Energize.

Get into “Inside Out”

The 9-part series kicked off Nov. 30 and continues through January. Watch the videos on local station TV3, online on the lakestv3 YouTube channel, or at beckercountyenergize.com. Videos launch every Monday. Read the feature stories in the Tribune, in the Wednesday print editions every week of the series as well as online every Wednesday at dl-online.com.

The series schedule is as follows:

Generalized Anxiety During the Pandemic/Current World Stressors

TV3 video: Monday, Nov. 30 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Dec. 2


TV3 video: Monday, Dec. 7 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Dec. 9

Farmer Depression and Suicide

TV3 video: Monday, Dec. 14 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Dec. 16

Bipolar Disorder

TV3 video: Monday, Dec. 21 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Dec. 23

Addiction/Recovery and Mental Illness

TV3 video: Monday, Dec. 28 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Dec. 30

Borderline Personality Disorder

TV3 video: Monday, Jan. 4 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Jan. 6

Mental Illness and the Judicial System

TV3 video: Monday, Jan. 11 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Jan. 13

Mental Illness as it Relates to Domestic Violence

TV3 video: Monday, Jan. 18 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Jan. 20

Mental Illness in the Elderly and Final Panel Wrap-up

TV3 videos: Monday, Jan. 25 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Jan. 27