The early stages of the pandemic were uncertain and frightening times. Older people living in care settings were being discharged from hospital with the COVID virus. Later life housing schemes shut their communal facilitates, while staff and outside organisations moved from face-to-face engagement with people to phone calls, post and some virtual interaction.
The pandemic highlighted people’s social isolation, loneliness and how they were disconnected from their usual support mechanisms. It was good for that to be made visible. But some people in later life also felt that suddenly, their lives were seen as less valuable than those of the generations behind them.
It’s positive that RE-COV research in retirement villages and extra care housing by St Monica Trust and the Housing LIN, published at the end of April, found that the housing with care sector‘s response to COVID benefitted residents.
As Programmes Manager for Empowerment and Later Life at the Mental Health Foundation, I have witnessed the pandemic’s negative impact on the mental health of some residents. There was huge sensory deprivation. Virtual connections are all very well, for those who have them, but the loss of physical touch, hugs, and the joy of being in the company of the people you love was so painful. It was also impossible to make sense of, for those with cognitive impairments.
The Creating Communities Project (opens new window) - which the Mental Health Foundation delivered in partnership with Anchor Hanover Housing - moved from face-to-face facilitation to phone calls, creative activities in the post and facilitation of a group through people’s televisions.
One woman spoke of her distress:
I’m struggling with awful feelings at the moment. It’s my grandchildren that give me unconditional love. The phone or video is not the same. My health conditions mean that I have not been able to see any of my family since March. Though this group is helpful, when it’s over, it’s me and the four walls. I have no interest in the telly. The weather does not help. I’m going slowly downhill, still awake at 4am, I can’t switch off.
My colleague, a project manager in Wales for our Standing Together Cymru (opens new window), says the big question isn’t just about ‘when’ everyone is allowed to go out and be free again… it’s ‘how’ that can happen. Particularly with people in later life, it is going to be a real challenge for many to find the confidence they once had.
The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW) is nature. The purpose of the Week is to start a national conversation about mental health. The Mental Health Foundation’s own research suggests that as many as half of us found that being in nature helped to deal with the stress of the pandemic. We have also found that 11% per cent of UK adults we surveyed found it difficult to access nature when they wanted to.
One of the case studies for MHAW features a participant, Ruth, from the Standing Together Cymru project, who talks about how she’s always happier outside in her garden. How everything in the garden gives her pleasure, even the weeds, as she enjoys pulling them out.
The Mental Health Foundation has developed Seven Top Tips for people to connect with nature to support their mental health.
I have chosen three of these to support people in later life as they emerge from the Pandemic. The first is: find nature wherever you are, because nature is all around us. It might be a garden, a local park, the countryside or a beach or wetland. If you are someone who does not feel at ease in nature, why not give nature another go? Sitting on the same bench and noticing the seasons change may help you feel at ease.
The second is: connect with nature using your senses. The pandemic has deprived us of a lot of sensory pleasure but nature engages the senses even if you experience some sensory impairment. Feeling the warmth of the sun on your face, hearing bird song, seeing the colours in a landscape and smelling freshly cut grass can all improve your mood.
The final tip is: bring nature to you. Sometimes it is very difficult to access natural places because of where you live, how safe you feel or your health. If so, then it is important to prioritise bringing the outside inside.
Having plants in your home is a great way to be with nature - to see, touch and smell it. Research tells us that looking after plants has a positive impact on wellbeing. Having a window box or a bird feeder, watching nature from your window or looking at nature virtually all allow you to connect and reflect on nature.
Thinking, writing or drawing about times you remember enjoying nature are other ways to connect with the natural world, even if access to the outside is complicated.
Mark Rowland, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation, says nature is not a luxury. Everyone needs to access and experience its benefits for our mental health.
You can find details of Mental Health Awareness Week, and all of the Top Tips, here (opens new window).
If you found this of blog interest, check out other relevant resources on combating loneliness and reducing isolation curated by the Housing LIN.
We are also grateful to the Mental Health Foundation for supporting our dedicated mental health and housing topic webpages.
And, to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week 2021, join us at our acclaimed HAPPI Hour webinar on Thursday, 13 May at 4pm, to find out more about housing, mental health and wellness.
Lastly, if you would like to find out more about how the Housing LIN can support you develop your housing for older people strategic vision and/or operational plans to meet the future accommodation needs of older adults, please email us at: email@example.com