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How Well Will Older People 'Bounce Back'?

Published on 04 August 2021 12:25 PM

Research showing just how badly the pandemic was impacting older people in early 2021 raises questions over how well they can ‘bounce back’.

Age UK calls on the Government to give the NHS and social care extra resources to help older people make the best possible recovery and with Coronavirus now hopefully in retreat, Age UK appeals to the public to keep supporting the older people in their lives.

Today, at a time when there is hope that the Coronavirus may finally be starting to loosen its deadly grip, Age UK publishes a new report about the appalling impact of the pandemic on millions of older people aged 60 plus in the UK in the early part of this year. This is the second wave of research Age UK had carried out into the health and wellbeing of older people during the health emergency, with the findings this time gathered in January and February 2021. A third and hopefully final wave of this research goes into the field in August.  

The Charity says that the impact of the pandemic on the health and wellbeing of some older people in early 2021 is so demonstrably severe that it raises big questions over whether they will be able to ‘bounce back’. The adverse effect may prove long lasting in many cases, or even irreversible, with big implications for the NHS and social care in the months and years to come. 

Lockdowns, social distancing measures and loss of routines and support – as well as limited access to services to manage pre-existing or newly emerged health conditions – mean millions of older people had seen their physical health and function decline. For some, catching COVID-19 had made things even worse.  

In February 2021:  

  • 27% (around 4.3 million) said they couldn’t walk as far. 
  • 25% (around 4 million) reported they were living in more physical pain.  
  • 17% (around 2.7 million) said they were less steady on their feet. 

For a minority, but still appreciable numbers overall, the deterioration in their health and wellbeing had been severe and was affecting their independence.  

In February 2021:  

  • 12% (around 1.9 million) felt they were less independent since the start of the pandemic. 
  • 10% (around 1.6 million) of older people who had previously been able to get up and down the stairs were now finding it difficult. 
  • 9% (around 1.4 million) of older people who had previously been able to walk short distances were now finding it difficult. 

“I have become wobbly and have fallen several times, hurting my ribs on two occasions and my thigh on another occasion and I have hit my head on numerous occasions. The pain in my wrists and thumbs has become worse.” 

“Haven't moved out of the house for months on end. Can't even make it up the stairs now (previously no problem at all).” 

“I am in constant pain - and I mean pain, not ‘aches & pains’” 

“My pain has got a lot worse. I am in my chair 24/7. Some days I don't eat as in too much pain…. only get up when I need to go to the toilet.” 

“Since catching Covid-19, they are not the same person, health wise, as before. They now struggle to even walk small distances, daily selfcare is a lot worse, and anger/mood problems now bad.” 

"My mobility had deteriorated badly. I can walk to my gate but that's all. Even a small amount of effort leaves me breathless.”  

Worryingly, the research also found evidence of accelerated cognitive decline. Alongside prolonged periods of isolation, reduced social contact, and limited mental stimulation, by February 2021 some older people had been left feeling forgetful and confused.  

  • 22% (around 3.2 million) of older people were finding it harder to remember things since the start of the pandemic. 

“Her mood is extremely up and down and most worrying is the huge deterioration in her memory - both short and longer term. This was not really an issue before the pandemic.” 

The pandemic was seen to have had a deeply distressing impact on many older people’s mental health. Some who were already living with a mental health condition had seen their symptoms exacerbated (in some cases a relapse had been triggered after many years). Many other over 65s were experiencing anxiety, low mood and depression for the first time.   

  • 36% (around 5.8 million) said they feel more anxious since the start of the pandemic.  
  • 43% of older people (around 6.9 million) said they were feeling less motivated do the things they enjoy since the start of the pandemic. 

“I am now constantly depressed; I often sit and weep and wonder how I shall be able to carry on.” 

“I have had suicidal thoughts and get upset even watching most films... I get about an hour sleep as I’m in a lot of pain and lately been having nightmares about ending my life. I woke the other day sweating and anxious after a bad nightmare. 

Low mood and poor mental health were leading some older people to self-neglect. 

“Some days very down, don’t bother to get washed and dressed, what’s the point.” 

“She’s become withdrawn…. Just basically eats and sleeps all day. This has led to constant constipation and bladder infections. She wears incontinence pads but will not change them regularly as it’s too much of a chore.” 

Back in February 2021 the pandemic itself continued to be a source of great anxiety and, combined with prolonged periods isolated at home, many older people said they had lost confidence in doing everyday activities outside of the house.  

  • 54% of older people (around 8.7 million) felt less confident attending a hospital appointment. 
  • 37% of older people (almost 6 million) felt less confident going to a GP surgery. 
  • 18% (around 2.9 million) felt less confident leaving the house by themselves.  

“Not sleeping well, I feel like gagging and being sick when I have to go out.”  

“I get panicky when l have to go out in public, l have nightmares about being out in a crowd and no-one is wearing a mask.” 

"After almost 80 years on the planet, I have started having panic attacks." 

However, the impact was not evenly spread. Older people with pre-existing health or care needs, carers and older people on low incomes were among the most likely to report a significant adverse impact on their health and wellbeing. For example, in February 2021:  

  • 45% of older people living with a long-term health condition (around 2.9 million) were living with more physical pain since the start of the pandemic compared to11% (around 1 million) of older people living without a long-term health condition.   
  • 38% of older carers (nearly 860,000) were in more physical pain since the start of the pandemic – not surprising since many have had, literally, to shoulder more responsibility for the person they care for, without the back up of formal services. 
  • 29% of older people in lower social grades (around 2.6 million) were living in more physical pain since the start of the pandemic compared to 20% (around 1.4 million) of those in higher social grades. 

The research indicated that back in February older people from ethnic minorities were also feeling less confident about getting out and about, accessing health services or receiving support at home, when compared to their white counterparts.  

  • 27% of older people from ethnic minorities felt less confident going for short walks outside since the start of the pandemic, compared to 19% of white older people. 
  • 26% of older ethnic minority people felt less confident leaving the house by themselves since the start of the pandemic, compared to 17% of white older people. 

Caroline Abrahams, Age UK’s Charity Director, said: “We’re all hoping that this nightmare pandemic is finally in retreat, but even if it is millions of older people will still be left coping with the difficult physical and mental after-effects of all they have endured.” 

“Our research found that earlier this year, immobility, deconditioning, loneliness, and an inability to grieve as normal, were leaving deep physical and emotional scars on a significant proportion of our older population. It’s too soon to know for certain how many older people can ‘bounce back’ from the pandemic but at the very least it will be tough, and they are going to need all the help they can get. The implications are clear: Government must give our physical and mental health and social care services enough additional resources to meet older people’s increased, pandemic-related needs. “  

“Sadly, millions of older people face long periods on hospital waiting lists, often in considerable pain. So as well as giving hospitals the extra funding they are asking for in order to reduce these lists as fast as possible, the Government must also look at what more can be done by GPs and community health services to support older people while they wait for their surgery, and increase their funding accordingly. Making sure these older people can access effective pain relief, for example, is a moral and medical imperative.”  

“Meanwhile, the rest of us should bear in mind that it may take many older people quite some time to rebuild their confidence and capacity, and we all have a part to play in helping them with this.  Our message to the public this summer is 'please do keep supporting the older people in your lives'.”  

If you are worried about the effect the pandemic has had on an older family member or for more information and advice, call Age UK Lindsey's Information and Advice service on 01507 524242 (option 1) or complete our online referral form.

Read the full report