Q & A With the Expert: Psychiatric Illness in the Elderly

In Pandemic, Elderly Plagued by Depression, Loneliness, and Abuse

More than 170,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus and countless others struggle with the aftermath of it months later. But there’s a whole demographic that has endured another aspect of the disease. Individuals aged 65 and up have been severely affected by the isolation during this pandemic.

When businesses and schools shut down in mid-March, peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet warned of potential health issues in our elderly as a result. Social isolation of older adults warranted a “serious public health concern” because of the heightened risk for cardiovascular, autoimmune, neurocognitive, and mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

Early on, it was thought that the elderly were more susceptible to the disease than younger people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eight out of 10 COVID-related deaths in the U.S. were among adults 65 and over.

The disease ran rampant through nursing homes across the country. In fact, there have been more than 70,000 deaths in long-term care facilities since March, which is a little more than 40 percent of all COVID deaths nation-wide. For many older adults, this (situation) meant a cutoff from the outside world. They could no longer participate in group activities they enjoyed or even having the opportunity to volunteer or work a part-time job. The psychological toll of loneliness and depression has been significant.

Depression is Not the Only Problem

Depression is not the only problem the elderly have faced. Reports of elder abuse have increased during the past several months. According to an April research paper from the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, everything from financial scams to neglect to physical violence has been on the rise.

Co-authored by Duke Han, Ph.D, a diplomate of the American Board of Professional Psychology in clinical neuropsychology. the article also points to ageism and how that exacerbates an already volatile situation for the elderly with mental health issues.

Han is director of neuropsychology in the Department of Family Medicine, and a tenured professor of family medicine, neurology, psychology, and gerontology at the Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California,

Ageism, the authors said, is “pervasive, harmful, and arguably the primary vice underlying elder abuse.” The researchers also indicated that the coronavirus has inspired ageist thoughts and comments given its predilection toward harming older adults. You may recall there was a disturbing trend to view our elderly as expendable.

In late March, Dan Patrick, Lt. Governor of Texas, suggested in a Fox News interview that grandparents would be willing to die to save the economy for their grandchildren. Patrick, 69, a grandparent himself, said if he had to exchange his own life for keeping the American economy running, he was “all in.” There were few older Americans who shared this view.

Han said he and his fellow researchers expected that the social isolation would be problematic for senior citizens. But he also noted that this is a world-wide issue, not just a U.S. one.

Han said that ageism underlies all other abuse, regardless of whether it’s physical, emotional, or financial. As people age, there’s more of a perspective that they have less value. One way to combat that (attitude) is to address society’s perspective on aging in adults. He felt that could go a long way in addressing the abuse.

Fraud on the Rise

One type of abuse that emerged more than others is financially-based.

“Right now, we’re seeing a lot of financial fraud,” he explained. “It’s all been anecdotal so far, but there are lots of sad examples—false treatments and false testing kits. They’re taking advantage of a desperate situation.”

But why do the elderly so often fall prey to scams when even a decade or two earlier they’d be more skeptical? Han believes it may be a change in the brain. Currently, he’s involved in a study looking for what elements are prevalent in the abuse. Researchers hope to have results in the near future.

“We believe a portion of older adults may have brain changes that make them more susceptible when they might not have been 20 or 30 years ago,” he said. “Particularly areas of the brain may change to make them more trusting. Plus, with a lack of checking in with friends and family, or they are depressed and lonely, they are more willing to hear what a scammer has to say.”

Older adults have acquired more money over time, so that makes them more susceptible to financial fraud. With families sheltering together and a loss of financial revenue, there’s more of a temptation to take the money, he said. So the financial fraud isn’t just coming from a sketchy telemarketer looking to cash in on a vulnerable grandmother. It’s often coming from someone they trust.

Han said older adults who are more at risk are the ones who are socially isolated, can’t get out, have less regular contact with other people, or have a medical condition that makes them dependent on someone else. The dependency creates a power imbalance. If someone has mental health issues, feeling more lonely, they might be more responsive to someone taking advantage of them.

“We think a lot of the abuse is actually going unreported,” he said. “The rates are probably higher than what we’re seeing.”



In Pandemic, Elderly Plagued by Depression, Loneliness, and Abuse

Eileen Weber


APA Reference
, . (2020). In Pandemic, Elderly Plagued by Depression, Loneliness, and Abuse. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 28 Aug 2020
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 28 Aug 2020
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