How has COVID affected the elderly?
Suffice to say, COVID-19 has had a significant impact on our society. People the world over have had to rapidly make sweeping changes to the way they go about their daily lives and interact with others in the community. As our governments and public health authorities have scrambled to keep the virus under control, imposing increasingly harsh restrictions that many have chafed at, we have necessarily become far more isolated.
For many of us, COVID-19 has meant months spent in lockdown, with only short excursions from home to shop for essentials, social distancing and mandated wearing of masks in public, working from home where possible – or worse, the fear of losing our job – and, for those with children and teenagers, over-seeing home-schooling.
Even appointments with doctors, psychologists and other health professionals were either cancelled or had to be done via phone or video call. In many cases this has presented a steep learning curve for using technology to connect with professionals and loved ones and adapting to a world in which interactions are increasingly virtual.
The effects of COVID-19 and lockdown on social interactions and community engagement for older adults
During lockdown there has been no going out for a stroll around a shopping centre, meeting a friend for a coffee at the local café, taking a trip to the local library, celebrating a birthday with family and friends, or enjoying a concert or performance. If you are lucky enough to enjoy good, independent mobility, you may have been able to leave your home for an hour or so to get some physical exercise – and, for many, this has been the one freedom to look forward to in an otherwise lonely and housebound day.
However, what about those who are not able to mobilise independently and therefore unable to go out for a walk and get their endorphins flowing? What of our elderly relatives who are more susceptible to contracting and dying from the virus or complications associated with it, but are also reliant on help from people who are out in the community, mixing with others, and are consequently at greater risk of exposure?
COVID-19 and mental health and wellbeing
The United Nations has publicly stated that while COVID-19 is primarily a physical health crisis, it has the potential to become a major mental health crisis as well, particularly for specific population groups. Indeed, the effect that COVID-19 has had, and continues to have, on mental health and wellbeing has been well-documented, and many mental health services, such as Lifeline and Beyond Blue, have reported substantial increases in demand during the pandemic.
Studies have shown that lockdowns required by COVID-19 have caused increased feelings of loneliness in older adults. Increased feelings of loneliness can decrease a person’s overall wellbeing, leading to or exacerbating depression and increasing the risk of cognitive dysfunction. Decreased activity and mobility, such as that experienced by older people in quarantine or lockdown, can serve to increase their frailty, impact sleep patterns and sleep quality and lower overall wellbeing.
The effects of COVID-19 on older people with dementia
What about those living with dementia in an aged care facility, who may have little understanding of the virulent nature of the virus or the reasons for the restrictions on the wider community, but may be well-aware they have seen nothing of the outside world or their loved ones in what feels like forever?
International studies have shown that, not only are the elderly more susceptible to COVID-19, the acute psychological effects of quarantine and lockdown on those with dementia and related neuropsychiatric conditions are more pronounced.
Almost 60% of caregivers surveyed reported that behavioural and psychological symptoms displayed by their elderly loved ones had worsened, with increased irritability, agitation, anxiety and apathy and new-onset sleep disorder being the most commonly reported changes. This in turn resulted in a rapid increase of stress-related symptoms experienced by two-thirds of caregivers.
It is well-known that regular exercise, activity, social interaction, and good quality sleep all have positive impacts on cognitive function, helping individuals and their caregivers to better manage the symptoms and progression of dementia. Unfortunately, lockdown and quarantine have significantly impacted people’s freedom of movement and taken a heavy toll on both the physical and mental health of dementia sufferers in quarantine/lockdown.
The effects of COVID-19 and lockdown on older adults in aged care facilities
What of those who live in an aged care facility with their spouse? They may have been married 40-50+ years, then they suddenly become separated from each other for the first time in decades, when one of them is put into quarantine for 14 days because after attending a hospital or an appointment outside the facility?
Consider, for a moment, our elderly loved ones whose only human contact has been with the carers and other residents in their aged care facility – those who crave human contact and touch, but are now tended to by carers who are potentially covered from head to toe in personal protective equipment; those who have made good friends with other residents and, perhaps for years, have looked forward to eating meals and interacting with them each day, but are now confined to their own rooms or required to social distance in common areas.
While some aged care facilities have taken steps towards educating residents in the use of technology, offering and encouraging digital alternatives to services and activities that had previously only been available face-to-face, and making technology and digital devices more readily available to residents, to decrease the negative impacts of isolation, virtual interaction doesn’t always provide the older person with same level of satisfaction.
In surveys of older people, undertaken during the pandemic, responses indicated there is a strong correlation between increased depression and decreased satisfaction with the standard of living, and living in an aged care facility.
COVID-19 and the changing face of aged care
Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the aged care industry had seen significant drops in occupancy rates in residential aged care homes, with increased community supports allowing many older Australians to embrace their preference to stay in their own home for as long as possible. The increased restrictions on contact with elderly residents in aged care facilities, coupled with repeated outbreaks in aged care facilities, has resulted in a degree of lost confidence in residential aged care services.
Consequently, many families have questioned whether it might not be better to have their elderly loved ones cared for at home, either taking on the role of carer themselves or accessing financial support for in-home aged care services.
The COVID experience has only strengthened some people’s desire and resolve to continue to live independently, to support their elderly loved one to live independently, or to take on the role of caring for their elderly loved one themselves. The Australian government’s support of the ‘Aging in Place’ initiative has been demonstrated by their commitment to increasing the number of home care packages in order to assist older people to remain in their home rather than enter residential aged care.
Older people now have greater access to aged care support services, from NDIS registered organisations like ConnectAbility such as shopping assistance, transport services, and domestic assistance, including help with personal care and dressing, cleaning, meal preparation, washing of clothes and dishes – any domestic task that a frail or elderly person cannot undertake themselves. When provide by a trustworthy, government-registered provider, this kind of support allows the older person to:
- remain in a familiar and comfortable environment.
- receive all the support, care and assistance they need.
- retain some independence.
- retain a sense of still being part of the wider community.
Putting the responsibility for in-home care in the hands of a reputable care provider also relieves the burden of care, and associated stress, that may otherwise have landed on family and friends.
In-home Aged Care Packages with ConnectAbility
ConnectAbility are a registered provider of disability and aged care support services, dedicated to helping people make the most of their independence and enjoy their life to the fullest.
Contact ConnectAbility If you, or your elderly loved one, have experienced the negative effects of COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines and you are looking for assistance and aged care support services that will allow you to remain in-home, while maintaining a connection to the community and a personalised degree of independence.
If you would like more information on how ConnectAbility can help you or your elderly loved one to feel more supported, connect with other seniors and support services, and live more happily, comfortably and independently during COVID-19, please call us on 02 4962 1000 (Newcastle) or 02 4349 3700 (Central Coast). Alternatively, you can email us at [email protected] or complete our contact form to have a ConnectAbility representative contact you.