After lockdown, an opportunity for our elderly people
It’s not very often that elderly New Zealanders attract our attention, but COVID-19 has seen the plight of some of our elderly people in the headlines for weeks.
Early and repeated recognition of the vulnerability of older people to the effects of COVID-19 was front and centre in the Government’s messaging, over 70s were told to stay home for weeks prior to lockdown, some rest homes have received significant media attention as a result of the clusters of cases they’ve experienced, and all New Zealand COVID-19 deaths have been people aged 60 and over.
Over lockdown, all of us had a concrete opportunity to experience the kind of isolation and separation that is sadly the norm for many older people, giving us a chance to “reflect on life for our elders.”
I can only imagine how difficult this must be for so many: both for those people repeatedly being reminded of their vulnerability to the virus, and for the families and friends who could do little more than watch from the side lines.
Of course, the challenges for elderly New Zealanders during this time go beyond physical health, the separation and lockdown measures have only exacerbated the issue of loneliness. In fact, Lisbeth Nielson, director of the division of behavioural and social research at the National Institute of Aging in the United States, has noted many “older people are finding that they are cut off from the types of activity that bring meaning or purpose to their life, communal activities, recreational or exercise or just face-to-face social interactions that they are used to having.” Even now, in Level 2, my friends who regularly visit aged care facilities have shared stories of family members deciding who should visit, and chaplains having to ration their visits to one person per day, having to make impossible decisions about who gets a visit today, and who has to wait for another 10, 15, or 22 days.
While COVID-19 has exacerbated loneliness and highlighted the need to improve our connections with elderly New Zealanders, the trend isn’t new. Loneliness and its connection to older New Zealanders was recognised long before COVID-19 reached our shores. In 2018, for example, a New Zealand Herald article reported that “a third of elderly spend their days alone,” while 2019 research from the University of Otago found that “loneliness and social isolation can compel elderly people to enter aged care more than health issues.”
Loneliness and its connection to older New Zealanders was recognised long before COVID-19 reached our shores
Despite these heart-breaking stories of loneliness Chief Innovation Officer at the Australian Centre for Social Innovation Chris Vanstone suggests that while the pandemic is “shaping up to be an awful shared experience,” it also brings opportunities and “potential shifts” in the way we function as a society. In particular, Vanstone points out that over lockdown, all of us had a concrete opportunity to experience the kind of isolation and separation that is sadly the norm for many older people, giving us a chance to “reflect on life for our elders.”
I would suggest we have an opportunity for more than a simple reflection, and that now might be the time to begin to build upon and improve the way that we care for and connect with elderly New Zealanders for the long term.