Older Australians have been put to the test this year. They’ve been at the forefront of every conversation associated with the pandemic, from who is the most vulnerable to who’ll get the vaccine first and even around the merits of shutting down the economy to protect them.
As the nation opens up and restrictions ease, we must now consider the effect this stressful year of fear and isolation has had on some older people. And, according to Dr Belinda Cash, a senior lecturer at Charles Sturt University, as we reintegrate older Aussies back into society in a post-COVID world, we have to rethink the way in which we view them.
Cash believes that the impact of public health messaging and at times the ageist reporting of COVID-19 in the media will have a big impact on the mental and physical health of the elderly in the coming year.
“Every day we would hear an update saying X number of people have contracted COVID, X number of people have died, but all those people who died, this number were in aged care. And this somehow made it more tolerable to the general public that it was happening to other people, it wasn’t happening to those of us who weren’t in aged care,” she says.
“I can understand why they were doing it; to try and keep public anxiety at bay but I don’t think it helped older adults. If you’re the subgroup who continually is being reported in that way, that says, ‘Hi, this is the number of people who died and most of them were in your age group,’ then you understand, am I going to feel a bit nervous about coming back out and reintegrating while this virus is still amongst us.”
The health advice stating that vulnerable people should avoid social contact and shield in the home means that particular attention will need to be paid to the mental health of the older population going forward, especially as the signs of distress can be hard to pick and each person will deal with isolation differently.
“I think now is when we need to start really moving towards talking to individuals because not all older adults will have the same level of risk, just like not all people of different age groups will have the same levels of risk,” Cash says.
“We need to stop this idea of saying all older adults are at risk, in the same way as to having those individual conversations, it empowers people to choose what is right for them rather than saying, ‘Well, look, I’m over 65, so therefore I’m really high risk because of this virus and I should stay away from people.’ I think that that longer term impact on mental health and wellbeing will start to really shine through if we don’t start getting people safely participating again.”
Checking in with a simple conversation, be that a GP or family member, can be helpful, especially for people in aged care homes who have been impacted in a different way to the wider population.
The pandemic has exacerbated problems that already existed for people in aged care; loneliness has long been talked about as a significant barrier to good health in old age. And as the wider population has found ways to stay in touch, work and communicate with the now ubiquitous Zoom among others, now is the time to do the same for aged care.
“I think we saw right from the very beginning of the first lockdown across the country that a lot of the messaging was around finding other ways to get connected, and we know in modern society that most of that happens through technology. We have seen so much of our life turn into that online space,” Cash says.
“I, for example, have been working at home since March and I’ve not had to go anywhere. I’ve been able to do everything by Zoom, by telephone and connect in new ways. But that’s not the case necessarily for people who don’t have access to devices or access to the internet and even access to digital literacy, which is a huge problem.”
Low digital literacy is also a problem to be addressed, according to Cash, as well as the financial barriers to owning technology.
“I would love to see all facilities have much better access to technology because that will allow and encourage all the adults to stay connected. Particularly in modern society where grandparents, great-grandparents in aged care haven’t seen their children, haven’t seen their grandchildren, haven’t been able to get out and about, and that may continue at times like Christmas, where traditionally people have gone back in, being part of family events and social engagements. This digital connectivity is going to become of increasing importance going forward.”
Many of the issues the elderly have faced during the pandemic can be traced back to ageism, says Cash, and facing up to that will be a positive step forward post-COVID.
“I find it incredibly disturbing on so many levels that, unlike how we think about sexism or racism, we often find and see so many people challenging the other isms in terms of the way that they affect different subgroups of the population, but yet ageism is still so pervasive.
It’s something that everybody is likely to encounter if they live long enough.”
“This isn’t about a minority group, this is about all of us in the future. And I do think that it’s a bit of a Western problem, much more than it is in other more collectivist cultures who have greater respect for later life.”
Changing our mindset and our language about age is a good start, says Cash. Throwing away old habits, such as flippantly claiming old age if we forget something or pick up an injury, will help reframe how we think about age, as will learning to call out ageism if we see it, much like we would expect to call out sexism, racism or any other denigration of minorities.
“I don’t think this is one of those things that is going to go away quickly or easily, but I do think that one of the positive things is that something positive can come out of COVID – it highlighted the ugliness of ageism. It really highlighted that these kinds of dismissive attitudes of older adults and of ageing really came to the surface in an overt way. And I think a lot of people were quite shocked by that, and genuinely surprised that that kind of conversation could happen so openly, that we could compare the value of our economy to the wellbeing or the life of an older adult was quite mind blowing for a lot of people.
“So I would really be encouraging people to actively call out that ageism. When you’re hearing it, then don’t be afraid to say, ‘Well, that’s not really the experience of all old adults,’ but just put everybody into this deteriorating, fragile, frail, useless language that happens and it’s really dangerous.”Do you have an idea for a story?
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