Sturt University gerontology expert Dr Belinda Cash (pictured, inset), a member of the Charles Sturt Institute for
Land, Water and Society (ILWS) and Senior Lecturer in
social work and human services in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences in Albury-Wodonga,
says as we begin navigating life with the virus still in our midst, it is time
to shift the conversation from risk management toward safe participation.
The experiences of this past year have impacted the mental health and wellbeing of people across all age groups. The COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold as Australia was still emerging from a catastrophic bushfire season, so anxiety, stress and social disconnection have been common threads through many people’s experiences of 2020.
Older adults in particular have had a lot to worry about during this year. Although Australians are living longer and healthier lives, older adults have a greater likelihood of chronic health conditions. These conditions have been associated with increased risks, complications and deaths associated with coronavirus.
As a result, health advice to older adults from the outset of the pandemic was to not leave their homes at all and to avoid social contact wherever possible.
While this advice was intended to protect against contracting coronavirus and experiencing its associated risks, social distancing itself can impact physical and mental health. Social isolation and loneliness can pose serious health risks, including depression, cardiovascular issues, cognitive decline, and even increased mortality.
It can be tricky though, to identify people at risk of isolation and loneliness. It is easy to assume that living alone or not having many social connections would be major risk factors, but this isn’t necessarily the case.
How each individual subjectively feels about their own experience of loneliness or perceived lack of social support is actually one of the strongest predictors of whether connectivity will impact their mental wellbeing.
For example, one person living alone with few social connections may not feel lonely, while another with a larger network might feel very lonely. This helps to explain how older adults in residential care situations have often been found to have a high incidence of isolation and loneliness.
As we head toward the end of this rollercoaster year, it is timely to think about what all of this means going forward.
Although restrictions are slowly relaxing, tensions remain heightened without a vaccine or clear end in sight. We are also heading into a time of year often characterised by travel and social gatherings.
So how can we navigate this new ‘COVID-normal’ in a way that keeps older adults both safe and socially connected?
While some people are keen to rush back into social life, others remain cautious. It is very likely that for some older adults, there will be feelings of apprehension and anxiety about reconnecting with social activities as restrictions ease.
This is understandable when we consider both the strong health warnings to isolate, and the extensive media coverage of adverse outcomes for older adults both in Australia and around the world.
There have also been some pretty awful demonstrations of ageism throughout the pandemic. These have included suggestions that the vulnerability of older adults was to blame for community-wide restrictions and their associated economic challenges.
Reporting that focused on grouping all older adults together as vulnerable and then pitting them against younger generations and even the economy has not been helpful. These attitudes and actions devalue the extensive social and economic contributions of older adults to families, communities and society more broadly.
One positive outcome of pandemic restrictions has been the increased discussion about mental health and wellbeing for people of all ages.
Media campaigns to promote social connection featured strongly throughout lockdown periods, and there has been a noticeable change of language from social distancing to physical distancing, reflecting the importance of maintaining social connections.
There has also been a significant increase in the use of online technologies to promote social connection, such as increased use of social media and group messaging apps, online classes, and increased use of telehealth.
These innovations present a promising solution to the need for social interaction during the pandemic restrictions, but also as ongoing tools for those at risk of social isolation at other times.
As we begin navigating life with the virus still in our midst, it is time to shift the conversation from risk management toward safe participation.
Empowering and supporting older adults to understand their own individual risk factors and the strategies they can use to safely manage risks is key.
Consistent implementation of physical distancing, hand hygiene and masks will significantly reduce the risks to older adults in social gatherings and will enable the vast majority to engage with available social activities throughout the festive season.
If people choose not to, that is ok too. Gentle encouragement and support to participate more is fine, but understand that this may take a little time for some.
It is also useful to keep in mind that while a bit of apprehension is perfectly normal, there will be individuals who may need some additional support during this unusual and stressful time. There are lots of commonly held misconceptions that depression, anxiety and cognitive decline in later life are a normal part of ageing.
Although there are some normal age-related changes to cognition that can include reduced or slower memory and thinking processes, changes like dementia and depression are definitely not a normal part of ageing.
If you are an older adult worried about how you are feeling or have someone you are worried about, there are many strategies and supports available to help manage these issues.
Check out the handy fact sheets from mental health support services like BeyondBlue. They have very user-friendly information for individuals and caregivers about supports, strategies and referral options to help guide your discussion.
You can also consult a GP, social worker or other counsellor for further mental health support if necessary.
And don’t forget to call out ageism when you see or hear it. Old age is a destination most of us aspire to sooner or later. We should all have a vested interest in making sure we have a society that ensures we are safe, valued and respected when we get there.