International Day of Older Persons 2020
Published on 01 October 2020 10:04 AM
Today marks the 30th UN International Day of Older Persons and it should come as no surprise that the theme this year is pandemics.
The coronavirus pandemic has touched the lives of everyone but by far the greatest impact has been felt by older people.
As UN Secretary General Antonia Guterres said when he announced the 2020 theme: “The Covid-19 pandemic is causing untold fear and suffering for older people. Beyond its immediate health impact, the pandemic is putting older people at greater risk of poverty, discrimination and isolation.”
Here in Scotland we know that to be true. Early on we feared that the pandemic would have a devastating impact on older people and those at risk from underlying health conditions.
Sadly, that fear turned into reality. Coronavirus has affected significantly more older people than any other age group – 3,251 of the 4,236 people who have died so far in Scotland were over 75.
No age group is immune but the grim figures highlight how great the toll has been and continues to be on our older population. And we must never forget that each and every one of those deaths is a tragic loss to those who knew and loved them.
Protecting older people became a priority as the pandemic took hold, and rightly so. It is vitally important that older people in Scotland know that their lives matter and that they are integral to society.
Once lockdown began, tens of thousands of the most vulnerable older people were advised to shield. The Scottish Government guidance was clear – to stay safe they should remain at home, not invite visitors into their home and avoid all face to face social interaction.
Shielding brought with it many challenges. Our Age Scotland Helpline received record numbers of calls from older people and their families who were struggling to arrange essential food and medication deliveries.
But as the weeks and months went by the biggest difficulty faced by many older people was growing loneliness, isolation and anxiety. Lack of face to face contact with loved ones and the cancellation of all social activities has left a large number of older people feeling alone and cut off from their family, friends and community.
To help combat loneliness, which can have a seriously detrimental impact on a person’s physical and mental health, we introduced the Age Scotland Friendship Line and invited older people to pick up the phone and have a friendly chat. The service has proved extremely popular. As one caller said: “I don’t feel so alone now.”
Throughout the pandemic, Scotland’s care homes have been on the frontline of the fight against the virus. More than a third of coronavirus deaths involved care home residents and it remains imperative that social care and care home staff are supported with everything they need to prevent the spread of the virus as the infection rate begins to climb again.
For families of care home residents not being able to see their loved ones was unimaginably hard. Since lockdown eased and restricted visits have been allowed, we have also heard heartbreaking reports of the effect prolonged isolation has had on people living with dementia who have become withdrawn, unable to comprehend why they were not being visited by family. The safe resumption of regular visits from loved ones must be treated as an urgent priority in all care homes.
The unpaid carers of those living at home with dementia have shared similar stories. The Age Scotland About Dementia report, Locked Down But Not Forgotten, features the example of Margaret who cares for her husband, Les, who lives with dementia. Margaret has seen a significant deterioration in Les’s condition since lockdown stripped him of his usual routine. She now feels as though she is losing her husband much faster than she had prepared for.
Much of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on older people has undoubtedly been grim. But the community spirit and resilience shown by the older generation has been incredible to witness.
We have enjoyed seeing many of our Age Scotland community groups keeping in touch via Zoom. In Kinross, members of the town’s Men’s Shed used their skills to make thousands of pieces of PPE for health and other key workers.
Many other older people, who weren’t shielding, joined local volunteer networks delivering hot meals to older neighbours, getting their shopping and picking up medication. They proved once again that older people will rise to a challenge and help make things better for others.
Although older people are less likely to have access to the internet, lockdown proved for many to be the ideal time to learn new skills. With the help of grandchildren or by sheer determination, record numbers of older people are now taking part in video calls, using FaceTime or Skype to chat to friends and family all round the world.
Today’s International Day of Older Persons seeks to understand the impact of the pandemic on older people but, six months in, it’s still too early to know what the long term effect will be.
In Scotland we are heading into winter and the immediate priority must be an action plan for supporting older people through the rest of the year and beyond.
The pandemic is not going away. We are going to be living with it for years to come. But even in the shadow of this virus, older people must know their lives are important, they are valued and they will be protected by a caring society.