Maria Sonnenberg, Special to FLORIDA TODAY Published 7:01 a.m. ET May 26, 2020

While many of us recently have been spending our days awaiting the arrival of the package delivery guy or binging on the exploits of “The Goldbergs,” Eunice Zelle has found a way to gain peace and happiness during this quarantine period with the simpler things in life.

Zelle is not a young woman and she is medically fragile with an oxygen tank by her side, but the resident of Courtenay Springs Village on Merritt Island is enjoying the garden she created on the small porch of her digs at the assisted living facility.

Her garden is as miniscule as Annie, the little dog that is her constant companion, but bigger is not necessarily better for Zelle.

“I want to let everyone know that I am growing a garden right outside on my front porch to keep me busy during this time,” said Zelle, who moved to Courtenay Springs four years ago.

Zelle’s positive attitude is, unfortunately, not universally shared, and many people have been struggling under the stress of the pandemic.

Beyond the dangers of COVID-19 lie the problems of the mental health issues associated with the coronavirus outbreak.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) founded National Mental Health Awareness Month in May to “educate the public and advocate for policies that support people with mental illness and their families.”

According to NAMI, more than 40 million individuals in the United States live with a mental health condition, and those figures were gathered way before coronavirus reared its ugly head.

As we deal with uncertain times, iffy or non-existent jobs, cabin fever and the specter of a virus that lurks everywhere, the condition of our collective mental health is at risk, to say the least.

This year, NAMI’s rallying cry of “You Are Not Alone” focuses on making a positive impact on the millions who are struggling with physical isolation.

A particularly vulnerable segment of the population, in terms of COVID’s physical and mental ravages, is the elderly. It is well-timed that May is also National Older Americans’ Month, for the mental health of the nation’s elderly has been especially fragile during these trying weeks.

America’s senior citizens can gain a degree of safety by staying away from those who could infect them, but it comes at a high price mentally and can manifest itself beyond mental issues.

“Isolation can cause depression and anxiety, which can manifest in physical symptoms,” said registered nurse and certified care manager Lisa Conway, vice president of Senior Partner Care Services in Viera. “As people become depressed or anxious, they may complain of GI issues, fatigue, headaches, increased heart rate, dizziness and generalized weakness. These symptoms could exacerbate other chronic conditions the individual may already have.”

In addition to isolation, a major stressor is the disruption of our daily patterns. Humans are creatures of habit, and the pandemic has wreaked havoc with our routines, whether we are young or old. For the elderly, the loss of comforting routine activities can be devastating, particularly if those individuals are dealing with memory issues.

“Routine and consistency are extremely important for mental health,” Conway said. “The inability to maintain that daily routine may lead to increased depression and anxiety and even increased confusion for those with memory issues.”

In tending to her garden, Zelle has brilliantly incorporated a routine activity that brings her joy and comfort while diverting her mind from worrying about the uncertainties of life in the pandemic.

At local senior communities, the new normal includes engaging residents in activities that resembles pre-COVID-19 routine as much as possible.

To keep residents occupied, Courtenay Springs Village has engaged local entertainers such as Dan the One Man Band and Lonnie and Delinda to perform.

In the “old” pre-COVID days, the musicians would have performed inside, but now their acts are held outside while residents enjoy the show from their balconies.

It’s a little different, but it is still a nice routine.

“We also have Socially Distant Bingo and card games,” said Anna Smith, community outreach coordinator.

Like many other senior communities, Courtenay Springs also uses iPads and tablets for seniors to enjoy virtual visits with their families through Zoom and FaceTime. Even prospective residents can still see what is happening at communities they are considering without having to set foot inside.

“We are also conducting virtual tours of our community for those who are interested,” Smith said.

Residents of Victoria Landing in the Eau Gallie Arts District enjoy their meals in the dining room, just as they did before the pandemic, but now separated by 6 feet of distance.

Activities such as yoga and poolside musical entertainment are still being held, again all appropriately distanced.

“A daily routine can reduce stress, increase security and also help with sleep,” said social worker Barbara Fradkin, director of One Senior Place in Viera. “If they start the day off wrong it will never straighten out. Their whole day will be off, which can cause more behavior issues with people that have dementia, more disorientation and restlessness. Having a daily routine helps both the seniors and the caregivers. Everyone knows the sequence of the routines so there are no surprises as to what happens next.”

During times of major life disruptions such as the pandemic, it is critical for everyone to establish routines that will help the body clock to stay on track. It is also a time to bring unexpected but pleasant surprises, such as the dozen donuts that Tonya Morales, community relations director at Sonata Viera, brings to the senior community, courtesy of Dunkin Donuts.

When nothing about life feels regular, it is time to reinvent routines to make you happy. For Zelle it is watching her garden grow in the company of Annie.

“My message to the world is to have patience and keep busy,” said Zelle.

And taste the joy of fresh tomatoes.