Coronavirus tests mental health

Featured By Linda Trischitta, Megan Jacobo and David L. Snelling The Miami Laker Wednesday, September 30, 2020

     Twice each week, Joan Hutcherson awaits a lunch delivered by Freebee to her home.  It’s a project begun in July by the Town of Miami Lakes and its Elderly Affairs Committee after the coronavirus pandemic meant seniors couldn’t meet in person.

     “Those Freebee drivers are angels,” said Hutcherson, 78, who lives in town and doesn’t drive.

     Hutcherson is like many people who have sheltered safely at home to outwait the threat of COVID-19, which in seven months has killed more than 3,202 residents of Miami-Dade County.

     But home isn’t always the sanctuary it’s meant to be. For some elders, protecting their health means loneliness and isolation may be their most frequent companions.  

     “I miss seeing all those people that I’m used to seeing,” Hutcherson said. “Not being able to get out and socialize has been the hardest part.”

     The pandemic has affected the mental health of people in all age groups, experts say.

     For children, it’s meant missing play with friends and trying to learn schoolwork from parents who aren’t trained as teachers.

     Younger kids may not be able to express their anxieties and Miami-Dade County Schools say they may be sad, cry frequently, or become hyperactive or aggressive.

     “Clinically, the greatest effect of the pandemic is on the kids,” said Herman Vega, a licensed mental health counselor at Total Rehab Services in Miami Lakes.

     Parents may be struggling because of lost income or the strains of working from home, while trying to keep a marriage and family together.

     Families can do things to maintain their mental health and make the pandemic -- which doesn’t have an end date -- more bearable.

     Aeleen Garrido-Tortorici is a state-licensed mental health counselor who is a student support service coordinator and guidance counselor at Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic School.

Garrido-Tortorici said parents should watch for changes in a child’s eating habits (becoming picky, eating more or less); if they are sleeping and can focus on play, among other signs.

    She recommends parents create structure and follow schedules and routines.

     Vega said teenagers are missing the rituals of adolescence, which include shunning adults.

     “Teenagers can’t handle being stuck in the house with virtual learning and just using the phone,” Vega said. “They are used to being mobile, going to parties and hanging out with friends.”

     He said it was important to not let children isolate themselves.

     “When kids eat, they take their food in their rooms,” Vega said.

     Have meals at a table each night, if possible, to “re-establish their family connection,” Vega said.

     Vega said it is also important to enforce bedtime, and not let kids stay up until 2 a.m. which results in crankiness the next day.

     Rosy Barroso, a licensed mental health counselor at The Therapy Labs in Miami Lakes, said one of her young clients “is holding his breath until school starts. His father asked him why he is so stupid.”

     There are ways to diffuse family tensions when times set apart for schoolwork, chores and recreation overlap.

     “It’s like parents are going back to school,”

Barroso said. She said families could try to have fun with lessons and have the kids teach their parents.

     She suggests off screen, nightly family activities like playing board games.

     Keeping in touch with relatives on Facebook Live or Zoom also helps, she says.

     And for families who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, she said survivors’ grief and distress will eventually turn into acceptance, and appreciation for the lives they lived.

     She said some families are turning to their faiths for comfort.

     Vega said it was important for couples to share responsibilities in the home when it comes to food shopping, cooking and cleaning and other chores.

     Those who can’t handle the stress may turn to eating, drinking and TV watching, which won’t help, he said.

    All of the experts talked about the importance of physical activity.

     Dominick Maurici, 31, a state-licensed personal trainer assistant who owns Caution CrossFit in Miami Lakes, says just 30 minutes of exercise each day can improve self-esteem and self-worth.

     Workouts can also reduce depression and help those having trouble concentrating, which are common experiences for people these days.

     Frank Castillo, 41, a member of the gym since 2011, said he relies on exercise “to be able to maintain a healthy active lifestyle. When the gym closed, I was like, ‘What am I going to do now?’”

    Castillo said working outside of the gym wasn’t the same because like many people who are suffering in isolation, he missed having a coach or people around him with the same workout goals. 

     The gym lent equipment and Maurici posted daily workout videos and held classes online for clients.

     After Miami-Dade County allowed gyms to reopen, Castillo said, “I push myself because at the end of the workout it helps me break through mental obstacles like being tired or dealing with personal things.”

     Selfcare is important, especially for the caregivers, says Alexandra Alonso of Always At Your Side Adult Day Care.

     She counsels relatives who are taking care of Alzheimer patients at home to try and avoid burnout.     

     Focus on what can be controlled and don’t feel guilty about making time for yourself, she says.

     Her tips: Ask for help from family members, get exercise and speak with a therapist.

     Her business offers caregiver workshops. She also recommends the National Family Caregiver Support Program which may reimburse costs to caregivers for home care, transportation and other expenses.

     Miami Lakes Councilman Luis Collazo has worked on safety for seniors during the pandemic and getting food to them and to the newly unemployed.

     “Nutritional insecurity became an issue, and for many individuals whom prior to the pandemic may not have had any financial hardships, securing food became their primary concern,” Collazo said.

     He said the food distributions throughout South Florida have been a big help.

     “The pandemic has definitely contributed to increased incidences of anxiety, depressions,” Collazo said. The town has linked those in distress to community-based service providers who offer telehealth, he said.

    Miami Lakes has also partnered with the YMCA to create a virtual learning center at the Roberto Alonso Community Center.

     “The program helps parents get back to work while making sure their children are logged into their virtual classrooms,” Collazo said.

     Hutcherson -- the elder who looks forward to eventually visiting friends and favorite restaurants like the Thai Café -- has seen a lot of challenges to society during her nearly eight decades on earth.

     And despite the current restrictions on her freedom, she has a positive outlook about the future.

     “We’ve made it this far,” Hutcherson said. “We can make it.”


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