Countries around the world have inadequately protected older people throughout the pandemic. The majority of COVID-19 deaths occurred in those over 65 years of age. It is now evident that older people will continue to struggle with isolation and diminished mental and physical health due to lack of health and social support systems before and during the pandemic.
A recent report from the United Kingdom (UK) indicates that older people continue to be at-risk of loneliness despite the easing of COVID-19 lockdown measures. According to the article, by Amelia Hill, a million people over 65 in the UK are at-risk for experiencing chronic loneliness. Loneliness is indeed an epidemic with serious effects on mental and physical health. A 2020 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in the United States found that one in four adults over 65 years of age are socially isolated. This same report finds that social isolation increases the risk of premature death at similar rates to smoking, obesity and physical inactivity. Additionally, loneliness increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia and poorer mental health effects.
According to the Older People’s Task and Finish Group, part of the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Tackling Loneliness Network, support organizations which helped to combat loneliness amongst older people, closed during the pandemic and have not yet re-opened. Research by the Tackling Loneliness Network, reported that “only 7% of 96 support organisations questioned have returned to normal service after the pandemic.” Additionally, “Almost three-quarters of older people questioned in the network’s survey said they had no or significantly less support from the charities they had relied on before the pandemic.” Indeed, these results indicate that older people continue to be left behind in pandemic responses. Despite the delivery of vaccines to older people in many countries, this does not mean that ageism does not exist, it does as many government responses have failed to adequately protect the rights of older people.
Additionally, the effects of pandemic isolation extend beyond loneliness. Organizations whose membership or representation are older people report a growing trend of those experiencing deterioration in physical health due to diminished activity, including feeling less steady on their feet, being unable to walk, diminished memory and decreased energy. Pandemic life has diminished the confidence of older people to return to their daily life, get out and about and increase their social interaction. Many older people feel fearful, anxious and unseen. These sentiments are a heartbreaking product of the ageism experienced by older people, only exacerbated by the pandemic.
Now is the time to prioritize older people in a new stage of pandemic life. Aligned with the United Nations (UN) Decade of Healthy Ageing and the Global Report on Ageism, concerted policy actions are needed to respect the rights of older people and ensure no one is left behind. Each of the four action areas of the UN Decade of Healthy Ageing, age-friendly environments, combatting ageism, integrated care and long-term care, require immediate focus to combat social isolation and ensure older people can live healthy, active and productive lives.
The International Federation on Ageing (IFA)’s 15th Global Conference on Ageing entitled “Rights Matter”, provides a global point of connection to fight for the rights of older people and ensure the prioritization and investment in creating an environment which allows older people to thrive. The conference program centers around the four action areas of the Decade of Healthy Ageing and will include a focus on older people and pandemics. Visit the conference website to explore these conference themes and further engage in fostering the social inclusion and health of older people.
To learn more about social isolation and fighting for the rights of older people, contact these experts.
• Dr. Mike Martin, Managing Director and Professor for Gerontopsychology and Gerontology, Institute of Gerontology and Dynamics of Healthy Aging, University of Zurich
• Dr. Emily A. Greenfield, Associate Professor of Social Work at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
• Linda Robinson, Chief Executive of AGE NI
Dr. Mike Martin Managing Director and Professor for Gerontopsychology and Gerontology
Dr. Mike Martin is professor for the Psychology of Aging and for Gerontology at University of Zurich.
Emily A. Greenfield, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Social Work
Dr. Greenfield's research addresses how early life experiences matter for aging. She also studies age-friendly community change processes.
Linda Robinson Chief Executive
Linda has exceptional knowledge and understanding of the challenges and opportunities faced by our ageing population.