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Coronavirus Isn’t The Only Risk To Our Elderly Right Now

Why it’s never been more important to pick up the phone and say ‘hi’

At 96, my grandmother is a tour-de-force.

Despite having six children, 19 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren – the latter figure of which grows every few months (we’re a fertile bunch), she manages to remember our names, partners and what we’re up to with impressive accuracy.

Her grooming game is still strong, and I’ve never once caught her wearing fleece or an elasticated waistband. She’s a true matriarch.

She lives in a nursing home on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, and my son and I try to pop in as much as possible.

According to staff, she’s the most visited resident, and when we stopped in for a visit two weeks ago she’d already spent the morning with some of my cousins and their kids.

At the time, Australia had just begun to report cases of coronavirus, so we were fastidious with our hand washing and sanitising and blew kisses from afar.


We spent an hour drinking sherry, gossiping about the other residents, playing balloon volleyball and watching my son hoon around on her wheeled walking frame.

“See you soon, Granny,” I told her as we said our goodbyes.

I lied.

Two days later, non-essential visits from family and friends were no longer allowed. Since then, most aged care facilities have followed suit and there is a chance this quarantine could remain in place for months.

And for good reason. At the time of writing, three of the five Australians who have so far died from Coronavirus have been aged care residents.

I have faith that the staff and my grandmother will take every precaution, but the swift spread of this disease and its effect on the elderly – combined with her age and the period of expected quarantine – has forced me to grapple with the idea that I may never see her again.

For the time being, the general directive regarding visiting the elderly is that unless they are in aged care and the facility has enforced visiting limitations, it’s still ok to see them if you practice good hygiene, have no symptoms and have not recently travelled overseas or been in contact with an international traveller in the past 14 days.

Prolonged isolation may save thousands in the aged care system from a deadly disease, but it will, as a result, also fan the flames of an equally sinister health crisis affecting the elderly; mental illness.

The rate of depression and mental health issues for aged care residents was five times higher than that of elderly Australians who live independently, according to a study by National Ageing Research Institute and Beyond Blue.

Isolation, loss of independence and health issues are just some of the factors in play, and with visits from family and friends no longer allowed, the implications this could have on the emotional health of our senior citizens is significant.

“This is a particularly hard time for our elderly,” says Beyondblue lead clinical advisor, Dr Grant Blashki.

“They’re a high-risk group so the correct public health measures being taken to shut down access to nursing homes and aged care facilities makes sense… but that has a whole lot of mental side effects for people in those institutions.”

Mr Blashki said cognitive issues and language barriers were an issue among this age group, as some elderly people may struggle to grasp the effects of COVID-19 and not understand why they were unable to receive visitors.

“Use common sense and think, where is someone at? Do they need it written down, or repeated?” Mr Blashki suggests.

“Try to help them to understand why their daughter or granddaughter can’t visit them at the moment. Try and make it clear they’re not being punished or trapped; it’s all part of trying to look after their health.”

He also suggested discouraging elderly patients from spending too much time reading negative news articles about COVID-19, and helping them to maintain some sense of routine.

Conversations around how to keep our elderly from feeling isolated has been a big topic for me and my friends in recent days.

Many of us have grandparents or parents who either live alone or are dealing with health issues such as cancer, respiratory and autoimmune diseases, placing them at high risk.

While we should all be practicing some form of social distancing, the thought of our loved ones spending months in isolation is a tragic thought.

It’s estimated that about 35 per cent of Australians aged 85 and over live alone, the majority of them female, while men in this age bracket have one of the highest rates of suicide.

One of my girlfriends, Heidi, has started a group initiative among her long-time social circle to make their parents, particularly those who live alone, feel connected.

“We’ve been friends since we were kids, so we’re going to start giving our friends’ parents a buzz to just say ‘hi’ every few days if they have to self-isolate to help keep their spirits up,” she said.

She also reached out to her connections on Facebook, offering to help anyone with elderly relatives who may be unable to buy supplies or run errands.

“This is something we’ve never experienced in our life time so I think it’s really important the whole community comes together right now,” she said.

“Now more than ever, this is the time we need to reach out to our neighbours.”

Many of us won’t be able to give our older relatives a reassuring hug until the curve flattens, but there are things we can do.

If you’ve got an elderly neighbour, let them know you’re happy to pick up groceries or walk their dog if they can’t leave the house.

Pull out that monogrammed stationery you’ve never used and send a letter – in your neatest handwriting – to an elderly relative, along with a few family photos or a DVD.

For seniors who are online, send them links to support forums, articles they’d find interesting or funny videos that might lift their spirits.

Or call, just to say ‘hi’.

“We’re going to have a bumpy few months,” Dr Blashki conceded. “But a lot of that (older) generation are quite resilient; they’ve been through tough times and in some ways they’ve got lower expectations of certainty than some of our young people.

“And we’ve got to remember that eventually it will pass.”

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