Many people don’t realize that the vaccines can improve nursing home residents’ mental health just as much as they will protect their physical health. The pandemic is a clear threat to nursing home residents. However, some measures put in place to combat the virus had the side effect of weakening their mental and emotional health. Everyone is hopeful that vaccination against COVID-19 will keep residents healthy. The hidden upside is that it could make them happier as well.
Fighting on Two Fronts
COVID-19’s arrival focused our attention squarely on one aspect of life: physical health. That focus was perhaps sharpest in nursing homes, where staff made unbelievable sacrifices to ensure the safety of their residents. Midway through the battle against the virus, a new threat emerged: deteriorating morale. Residents faced continued isolation and it started to take a toll. In the midst of their efforts to keep residents safe, many nurses, aides, and other staff members found that their residents were becoming increasingly discouraged by social distancing.
Common sense tells us mental health impacts physical health, and research supports the idea. The fight to keep residents physically safe never stopped, but instead expanded to include increased support for resident mental wellbeing. Staff scheduled numerous virtual calls with family members. Deliveries of meals, cookies, and snacks brightened many residents’ days. Visiting rooms with a window were set up with a phone so that residents could sit near their loved ones without increasing their risk of catching the virus. Letters and gifts were sent in abundance. Staff and family members did everything possible to ensure that the most vulnerable did not also become the loneliest.
Devoted staff members did their best, but prolonged isolation is hard for anyone to endure. Residents began to suffer from illnesses that were, in some ways, just as serious as the threat of COVID-19. Anxiety and depression increased all throughout society during the pandemic, and found their way into nursing homes as well. This brought up a difficult question: is it possible to reconcile the need for mental health with the need for social distancing to protect physical health? Communication technologies like telemedicine and video chatting services helped, but nothing can truly replace the joy of spending time with loved ones. Vaccines seemed to be the only viable answer.
A Change for the Better
Nursing home vaccinations across the nation allow for a profound change of focus. Instead of exclusively prioritizing physical health, staff can now bolster mental and emotional health. While the vaccines don’t eliminate all risk of illness, they provide a significant level of defense against the coronavirus. Residents have a new shield to protect their physical health. This means that staff can put more time into planning and hosting enjoyable group activities like game nights, movies, and other favorites. Residents may even be able to eat together once again.
Changes to activities and dining are lifting the oppressive feeling that nursing homes were under siege. The challenge now will be to rebuild the mental and emotional health of residents who have undergone a long and difficult battle against the unseen enemy of COVID-19. After a year spent fighting against the threat of illness and facing the loneliness that comes with isolation, it may take some time for residents to return to being their usual selves.
Moving Forward Together
Soldiers who return home after war often require additional time and patience from their loved ones as they acclimate back into civilian life. Residents have endured something similar to war, and may likewise need patience and understanding as they get back to normal, both physically and mentally.
The benefit now is that nursing home staff have even more experience figuring out creative ways to encourage and uplift their residents. Their innovation and problems solving during the pandemic made the most of limited time and resources. Now, with the vaccine working to keep residents safe, staff will be able to devote more time to improving resident morale.
Eventually, family members and friends will be allowed to visit nursing homes at their leisure. Until things do go back to normal, nursing homes can leverage their staff’s creativity by building on the work done under lockdowns. The vaccine not only protects residents’ physical health, but it frees up the caring and devoted nursing home staff members to do what they do best: providing personal care to the residents they serve every day.