Loneliness and social isolation due to an extended lock-down could increase the mental and physical vulnerabilities of the more than 400,000 New Zealanders aged over 70, an elder care expert warns.
Dr Hamish Jamieson is a University of Otago, Christchurch researcher and geriatrician. He says while COVID-19 is a real threat to the health of older people, the impact of loneliness, social isolation and having less contact with their GP could also be dangerous.
With older people likely to be in lock-down for much longer than the general population, there is an urgent need for nationally-co-ordinated initiatives that safeguard their mental and physical health and keep them connected to the world, Dr Jamieson says.
One good initiative is by Auckland Libraries whose staff are using their time while facilities are closed to contact isolated elderly.
Dr Jamieson says this initiative could be rolled out around the country in a co-ordinated way, and could include staff from other central or local Government agencies (such as staff at swimming pools and gyms) who cannot perform their duties due to the lock-down.
Cabinet will meet next week to discuss a possible step-down from the current Alert Level 4. While this could mean more freedom of movement for the majority of New Zealanders, the more than 400,000 Kiwis aged over 70 will still likely face isolation at home.
At Level 3, the Government strongly advised those aged over 70 or with vulnerabilities such as existing health conditions to remain at home to avoid contracting COVID-19.
Dr Jamieson says loneliness and social isolation are linked to a number of poor health outcomes and often prematurely force otherwise well older people into rest homes.
A study by Dr Jamieson and colleagues, published in 2017, found one in five elderly New Zealanders described themselves as being ‘chronically lonely’. This number is likely to increase under extended lock-down conditions for the elderly, he says.
“If you are socially isolated and lonely you are more at risk of depression and anxiety, and some chronic conditions, such as pain, can become worse,’’ he says.
Another study by Dr Jamieson and his colleagues, published last year, found older people who described themselves as lonely were almost 20 per cent more likely than others to move into a rest home, even when physically well.
Dr Jamieson praised the Government for spreading the message that people should definitely seek medical care for non-COVID illnesses, and not be put off by a fear of contracting the virus. He hopes older people hear and heed the message.
“COVID-19 is getting a lot of headlines but the numbers are low compared to the general population. Of equal importance is the general health of older people and they should not neglect this, including letting their GP know about any issues with their health from ongoing problems.”