Life during the coronavirus pandemic has created an emotional maelstrom across the world. For people with older adult loved ones, either at home or quarantined in a senior living community, these emotions can be felt exponentially as families are bombarded with news reports of the devastating toll the virus is taking on older people. Being shut off from loved ones, family members may experience unbearable uncertainty, fear, anxiety, despair, and guilt. As social work clinicians, we have helped our clients navigate the emotional fallout of the pandemic, and we have also been privileged to share in their astonishing ability to find a sense of hope and optimism in the midst of despair.
Optimism may seem an incongruent or jarring concept to think about right now. But In fact, the ability to maintain a sense of hope and optimism is crucial for strong mental health. At its core, optimism is about having hope and confidence in the future, even in the middle of bleakness. It doesn’t mean ignoring reality or sticking your head in the sand. And it doesn’t mean you won’t continue to feel those negative emotions. Fear, anxiety, and despair are normal, appropriate and useful responses to this pandemic. They spur us to take appropriate safety precautions like social distancing. But creating emotional balance is key. Finding ways to feel hopeful and optimistic brings balance and can make the uncertainty bearable.
Much advice has been written to help people cope day-to-day during the pandemic: eat right, get regular exercise, maintain social contacts, reach out, maintain routine, limit news watching. In the same way, it is possible to take steps to cultivate optimism and hope.
Practice Gratitude. Being grateful seems hard right now. But the research is clear that taking time to focus on the blessings, really noticing them, expressing them, can lift our mood. Being grateful for front line workers is an obvious place to start. Plus, when you are in the act of being grateful, it is the opposite of anxiety. Anxiety involves worrying about the future. When you take time to recall the 3 or 4 or 5 things you are grateful for, it keeps you grounded in the present.
Do Acts of Kindness. Self-care is critical right now and we have to take care of ourselves. But research also shows that reaching out to others in need to lend support contributes to our own wellbeing. Call a neighbor, check on an old friend, donate to a charity that is feeding the unemployed, bake brownies for nurses at your local hospital. Then, feel the good of doing good. Acts of kindness sow the seeds of a greater purpose and meaning, which is key to feeling hopeful and optimistic.
Consider the Positive Outcomes. During uncertain times, many of us tend to focus on all the possible negative outcomes. Take the time to remind yourself, make a list, of all the many positive or probable outcomes. The negatives won’t seem so certain.
Know your resilience. Resilience is built out of adversity, how we respond to it. You have surely experienced some suffering, whether personal, (death, illness, family strife) or societal (9/11, natural disasters, the 2008 recession). But you survived those, and you are likely stronger because of it. Remind yourself that you did it, identify the strengths you drew on then, and draw on them now.
Even as the sun finally shines, and many states and senior living communities start loosening restrictions, hope may naturally emerge, but uncertainty will persist. Making room emotionally for optimism can help make the uncertainty bearable.
Our thanks to Robin Mansfield, LCSW-C, of Aging Network Services in Bethesda, MD for this excellent advice. Aging Network Services has been providing geriatric care management and psychotherapy since 1982. Our clients are people who feel a strong sense of responsibility to parents who can no longer function independently. They are determined to keep their parents safe and as high-functioning as possible, and they also want to retain the joys and routines of their own lives. They rely on us to help them succeed at the difficult, emotion-laden balancing act they face.