I am happy to admit that I am over 70 – and for the last six weeks I have been told incessantly that I am “elderly” and “vulnerable”. This is not really how I see myself, but the messages have been so pervasive that my self-image has been dented. I have been told that I should stay at home and have whatever I need brought to me. I must admit that I have been well cared for by my two daughters, for which I am very very grateful – phone calls, Facetime sessions and food drops – but I have had to obey their well-meaning admonitions not to go to the supermarket, swab and sterilise!
So, I was pleased to be able to take part in a webinar put out by Charles Sturt University and the Australian Association of Gerontology, presented by Belinda Cash and entitled “Exploring the Impact of Social Distancing on older adults”. There was apparently a large global audience, estimated at 500, showing that this is an issue which has been widely noticed.
Countries around the world have adopted similar strategies to break transmission of the Covid 19 virus – isolation, quarantine, safe distancing, no non-essential movement away from home. This is easy to accept but the timeframes for distancing have been uncertain, which certainly doesn’t help anxiety and apprehension. The extra restrictions for older people are justified on the basis that the virus presents a special danger to them and they are disproportionally affected. From data presented in the webinar (and elsewhere) it can, however, be argued that chronological age is not the best basis for recent measures.
The webinar-provided figures for Australia, at the time, were 6720 cases of Covid 19 infection: the highest numbers in the 20-29 age group and the median age for them 48. Admittedly, for deaths from the virus the age effect is clearer – the median age of deaths from Covid 19 in Australia 79, with none under 40. Recent figures from New Zealand are 1474 cases, with only 8% in people aged 70 plus; deaths 17 out of 19 are of people 70 plus.
Sure, chronic health conditions and co-morbidity are risk factors, but many older people can manage with some success. And, as Belinda Cash and many others have pointed out, older people are not all the same. The determinants of their vulnerability vary by gender, socio-economic status, education and employment, location and culture. Low incomes among older people, especially older women, mean they are less able to manage when price gouging appears and when they cannot make their own decisions on the “best buys” at the supermarket.
What then are the social distancing/isolation issues which especially affect older people?
- Their usual family and social connections are disrupted. Many do not have close family living nearby or able to provide support – how many have children and grand-children living overseas who could not get home?
- Routine activities are also disrupted, and this can cause anxiety. The maintenance of routine activities can benefit social, physical and cognitive wellbeing.
- Those who are caring for spouses or others at home may be especially affected when they are disconnected from support.
- Many older people have poor digital skills and are less able to use new technology. Or they cannot afford the hardware, software and connectivity required. The webinar noted that 57% of people aged 70 plus in Australia have low or no digital literacy; 62% of those 50 plus have never made a video call. The digital divide has not been spanned.
- Social isolation and loneliness are increased. These are already major risks. Loneliness, for all age groups has been linked to other emotional responses – depression, anger, sadness, vulnerability, suicide. Good social connections provide protection against such risks.
- Too much information about the pandemic, which has dominated the news for weeks, heightens anxiety and can be overwhelming. (I still find if difficult not to tune in to the National Programme several times a day). It is best to limit this exposure, like screen time just before bedtime.
- The tendency of older people wanting not to be a burden can be heightened when we hear about how overwhelmed the health services are. We do not want to make it worse. As Belinda Cash said – “Tell them it is OK to have home care.”
I heartily agree with the webinar conclusions and I suspect so would Age Concern and our Minister for Seniors: –
- Do not underestimate the individual resilience of older people; some adjust well.
- Looking forward, do not make ageist assumptions.
- Do not make age the sole determining indicator for restrictions, rather look at health conditions.
- Do not let the label “vulnerable” come to mean less valuable.
Webinar PPT slides available at:
 Article by Charles Waldegrave, Dominion Post 30.3.20 https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/coronavirus/121309735/coronavirus-elderly-need-balance-between-protection-and-isolation)