Is the COVID-19 pandemic over – or is the virus gearing up for another attack? It’s difficult for us laypeople to make an informed judgment, isn’t it? Whatever your view, it’s clear, at least here in the Pacific Northwest (home to AgingOptions), that people have started reengaging in something like “normal life” in recent months, socializing with friends, dining out, and attending formerly banned activities like concerts and sporting events.
Nevertheless, for millions – described in this article from the NextAvenue website, written by Mark Ray and published a few months back – reengagement following the extended restrictions forced on us by COVID during much of the past 16 months has proved to be a major psychological challenge. One psychiatrist has even coined a name for it: Cave Syndrome. If recent research is accurate, people suffering with it number in the tens of millions. What’s more, the effects of Cave Syndrome on seniors can be especially bad.
Close to Half of Americans Unwilling to Return to Pre-pandemic Living
The article tells the story of Eleanor Howland of Tampa, who moved into an independent living apartment in April 2020 and barely left again until last July because of lockdown-induced isolation. Surrounded by neighbors and staff she had never met, Howland became very dependent on Netflix, Amazon, and countless books. Good thing she was a former librarian!
Even though restrictions have been lifted for Howland and other facilities just like hers, with many residents able to come and go with only masks required, there has been a mixed feeling across the nation about returning to “normal.” While some, like Howland, have picked right up where they left off, the American Psychological Association (APA) has found that not everyone is ready to resume life as it was pre-pandemic.
According to a March 2021 study by the APA, a whopping 49 percent of those surveyed reported uneasiness about returning to normal interactions, while a further 46 percent said they simply didn’t want to return to normal. And whether the surveyed were vaccinated or not didn’t seem to make a difference in their answer. So, what’s going on?
People Give Many Reasons for Cave Syndrome
Cave Syndrome isn’t a medical condition, nor is it even a medical term. It merely suggests a fear of going out, the name invented by psychiatrist Arthur Bregman. But it is an apt term for what seems to be implied by the APA’s recent study, and while the research didn’t give any reasons behind why people might be experiencing Cave Syndrome, other research has suggested that serious conditions could be lurking behind the fear. Chief among these would be post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, something often observed in the aftermath of other serious disease outbreaks, like SARS in 2003.
This fear, and the trauma-like responses that accompany it, could be made worse by the uneven nature of the lifting of pandemic restrictions, and the confusing, sometimes conflicting reports of COVID’s progress. The more unsure people feel about every aspect of the pandemic, the more likely they are to just stay home and continue to isolate.
Vaccination Controversy Adds to Cave Syndrome
As news outlets have reported, questions and concerns about the vaccine have led many residents of senior housing facilities across the nation to be unwilling to get vaccinated, prolonging their sense of isolation. While there has been a push to make vaccines as accessible as possible, especially in residential facilities, that doesn’t mean everyone has been rushing to sign up.
Obviously, not being vaccinated limits a resident’s ability to move freely in their environment and beyond, but thanks to Cave Syndrome that doesn’t seem to matter. Most vaccine-avoidant people have already built new habits and routines in isolation, and aren’t eager to change, giving no real incentive to get vaccinated. This recent Kaiser Health News article says that at least 10 percent of U.S. seniors have received no COVID vaccination.
The Impact of COVID-19 on Well-being
There’s nothing wrong with occasional solitude. Who doesn’t love staying home and drinking coffee in their pajamas once in a while? But long-term isolation—and Cave Syndrome—is something different altogether, and can have serious effects on mental health. This is especially true for those who already suffer from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia who really rely on social interaction to keep their minds sharp and help them focus.
Ellen Buckley, an Aging Life Care Professional, reports that she noticed the impact of the pandemic on her clients in a big way. “Some people who are well-oriented became so isolated,” she says. “It was lonely, it was depressing, it was frustrating. Other people who maybe did not have their cognitive capabilities declined in other ways. They might not have been as spunky or feisty. We saw their hair get longer and their nails get longer. Grooming was sacrificed to safety, but were they really safe if they had hair in their eyes and their fingernails were long?”
How to Leave Cave Syndrome Behind
The original article gives some great tips for moving past Cave Syndrome and back into a different, healthier routine. But we’ll note a few highlights here.
First, remember that the new normal isn’t going to be the same as life pre-pandemic. It’s okay to build something new. In fact, implementing changes in your routine to accommodate your anxieties—without letting them rule you—is completely fine and to be expected.
Stay flexible, as much as you can. The pandemic is a constantly-shifting situation, and there will be fluctuations in restrictions and freedoms as the numbers change. It’s important not to get locked in to a new routine quite yet. Stay open. Take small baby steps, and try one new little thing every day.
Most importantly, experts advise you to remain hopeful and patient. Schedule time to see or hear loved ones, over the phone or video call if necessary, and let yourself look forward to it. And maintain an attitude of grace and patience toward yourself and your loved ones. There’s no “right way” to deal with what we’re all dealing with, so the best way to approach an ever-shifting situation is with love and positivity.
The cave may be comfortable, but it isn’t a place to live forever. With a little hope and a little courage, you can take steps to make a whole new life in this brave new world.
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(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)