When the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated restrictions began to unfold in Australia, the heightened risks of the virus to older adults was at the forefront of discussions.
Australians over 70 years were quickly encouraged to practice social distancing and self-isolate to reduce their risk of infection.
But social distancing itself can pose a significant risk to physical and mental health and wellbeing, particularly for older Australians. This is something I will explore in an upcoming webinar hosted by Charles Sturt University, held in partnership with the Australian Association of Gerontology, on Tuesday 28 April.
Strategies such as isolation, quarantine and social distancing have long been used to minimise the spread of infection, so it is unsurprising the isolation of infected individuals and the quarantine of at-risk people has been at the forefront of responses to the current novel COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to managing contact with those known to have been exposed to the virus through isolation and quarantine, social distancing strategies have been enforced to reduce community spread of COVID-19.
It has been a strange new world as Australians have adjusted to the rapidly-changing restrictions being placed on the way individuals, families and societies connect and function.
Measures have progressively included the cancellation of group events; closure of schools, workplaces, restaurants and clubs; travel bans and the introduction of signs and floor markers to ensure physical distance is maintained in premises that continue to operate.
Although COVID-19 has been evident across all adult age groups, older adults have made up a higher proportion of deaths from the virus.
This is likely due to pre-existing chronic health conditions being more common in older age groups than it is about the chronological age of those experiencing complex and fatal reactions to the virus.
Despite this, concerns over heightened risks based on age prompted additional social distancing recommendations for adults over 70 years, who have been encouraged not to leave their homes at all and to avoid social contact wherever possible.
While this advice is intended to protect older adults from contracting COVID-19 and experiencing its associated risks, social distancing itself can also pose a significant risk to physical and mental health and wellbeing.
A key challenge of social distancing is that while it decreases the availability of most formal and informal family and social connections, it also removes the physical, cognitive and social benefits that have been linked to routine activities, such as shopping.
Social isolation and loneliness are recognised as posing significant risks to mental and physical health, such as having negative impacts on depression, cardiovascular health, cognitive decline and even increased mortality.
Recognition of the risks associated with social isolation have prompted a flood of media reminders and resources promoting alternative ways to maintain physical and mental wellbeing and shifts in language toward “physical distancing” to emphasise the importance of maintaining social connection.
Many of these strategies rely heavily on the use of online technologies, such as social media, group messaging apps and online exercise classes.
These innovations present a promising solution to the need for social interaction during the current restrictions, with research having highlighted the potential benefits of technology-based interventions in decreasing the experience of isolation for older adults.
For many older adults, however, there are a range of complex factors that impact on their ability to engage in the strategies and supports available.
Research by the e-Safety Commissioner states 57 per cent of Australians aged 70 and older have low to no digital literacy and among those over the age of 50, 62 per cent have never made a video call and 58 per cent have never interacted on social media.
For other older adults, the availability of digital devices and telecommunication services can also be impacted by socioeconomic factors or communication issues (such as vision and hearing impairments).
While there are many opportunities to support the wellbeing of older adults during the pandemic, it is important to consider though that not all older Australians are experiencing social distancing restrictions in the same way.
Exploring the potential impacts of the current restrictions on different groups of older adults is an important consideration to ensure suitable and adequate supports are available to encourage positive physical and mental wellbeing for all older Australians.
The webinar on Tuesday 28 April is one step toward beginning a conversation about strategies and solutions to overcome the challenges linked to the COVID-19 restrictions.
The webinar: ‘Exploring the impacts of social distancing on older adults’ is on Tuesday 28 April between 10am and 11am.
It is anticipated that a shared resource and a collation of responses to questions and key points raised throughout the webinar will be developed and made available after the webinar.