By Loyd McIntosh

COVID-19 has been hard on the senior population. While the virus itself has been problematic for seniors nationwide, the fear of COVID-19 has led to additional adverse health consequences, mostly due to missed medical appointments and lack of exercise.

Dr. David Fieno, a cardiac surgeon with Heart South Cardiovascular in Alabaster, compares the fear to the movie Jaws. In the movie, the shark is rarely seen, but viewers and the characters are constantly aware of its presence, making the fear paralyzing. “The thing is, you build it up in your head so much that it’s hard to know what the truth is,” says Fieno. “What we found was that a lot of people were just paralyzed by fear.”
In his practice, Fieno has patients in need of procedures that may have been prevented if they had seen their doctor on a regular basis. However, the recommendations from the government to put off “elective procedures” combined with the fear of COVID-19 created a perfect storm for simple medical issues to become complex problems. “When COVID-19 started, we heard from the CDC and the AMA that elective procedures needed to wait,” Fieno says. “What we found out within a few weeks is there really is no elective cardiac procedure.”

The pandemic has created new opportunities to help patients through innovative technology like telemedicine, allowing physicians to consult with patients via video. However, Fieno says he believes the advantages of returning to regular, in-office visits outweigh the disadvantages now that vaccines are available. “Everything we do in medicine is a ratio of benefit to risk. Even in cardiac patients, in general the risk is very low, and the benefit is high,” explains Fieno.

Not only have chronic conditions like hypertension, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes worsened, the pandemic has led to increased weight gain and depression among all demographics due to a lack of exercise. Stephanie Perez, a physical therapist and owner/operator of Empowered Wellness Physical Therapy, shifted her company’s focus to provide home health programs to people concerned about getting therapy or exercising in a gym or fitness center. “One of the reasons I created this business was because there is a lot that we can do just from a home exercise program by doing video consultation,” Perez explains. “We can watch people’s mobility, we can watch them squat, watch them move.”

Perez says providing telehealth services has been more beneficial than she could have imagined because she can see her clients in their home environment and make adjustments and recommendations based on how they live on a daily basis. “It almost adds a more personal aspect to what we do because we’re able to see how people’s homes are set up.”

Perez focuses both on her clients’ physical health and their mental and emotional health. For those who have given up going to the gym, playing a round of golf, or playing tennis and have lost that social interaction as well as the physical activity, Perez suggests finding some way to stay connected. For instance, creating a group exercise class with friends on Zoom is a great way to check on loved ones while getting much-needed physical activity.

“I’ve seen many people, especially the elderly, who tell me that they’ve been depressed since COVID because they haven’t been able to see their family and feel more isolated,” says Perez. “I offer as much emotional support as I can and encourage them on how they can support their body and immune system. You’re not able to have optimal healing and fighting ability if your mental health is not good. We’ve got to try to maintain some level of normalcy for our mental health. Keep doing what you love and pursuing what makes you feel good.”