This week, two charities, the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) and Independent Age have published research relating to the impact of the pandemic on those aged over 65. The research has found that the threat of a new variant and high infection levels, will leave many older people anxious and lonely.
The research, ‘The Mental Health Experiences of Older People During the Pandemic’, calls for more support for older adults (especially those aged over 65) and their mental health as the pandemic continues.
An already existing problem
Before the outbreak of the pandemic ‘one in four older people lived with a mental health condition’, the research stated, this prevalence is then compounded when looking at certain groups within the demographic of those aged 65 and over; these groups include: those living in care homes, those going through a bereavement, older carers and people with multiple physical health problems.
Owing to the pandemic interfering with access to healthcare and treatment as well as increased loneliness, due to long periods of lockdown and shielding, all of these pre-existing issues for older people has been exacerbated.
Chief Executive of Independent Age, Deborah Alsina said, “Too many older people’s mental health needs were invisible before COVID-19, and the pandemic has only exacerbated this problem.”
The impact of the past 18 months for many older people, didn’t simply disappear when we began to ‘unlock’, nor did they disappear when people got their first dose of the vaccine, or even their second.
The research by MHF and Independent Age found that ‘as many as 318,000 people aged over 65 lost their partners’ between the first lockdown in March 2020 and the ‘unlocking’ in May 2021.
“For some older people, the end of lockdown restrictions in the summer did not make much difference: there was no happy ‘return to normal’ for them. They continue to face the same illness, worsening mobility, grief, loneliness or isolation – often in combination - as they did before and during the pandemic.” Deborah Alsina said.
This level of grief, could be a large contributing factor toward the worsening mental health being witnessed within the older population, a fact which has likely been worsened by the restrictions in place during many of those deaths, meaning there wasn’t the usual support available from family at funerals and in the time after.
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Other strains on the experience older people had during the pandemic include: losing the ability to take part in regular exercise, such as time at swimming pools and specific public classes, loss of contact with friends, family and struggling to adapt to over the phone treatment with health professionals.
One participant of the study, Martin, aged 75 to 79 (name has been changed), said: “The worst thing has been the loneliness… I can spend [so much time] not talking to anybody, fifteen or more hours a day, not talking to a single soul.”
Through interviews, especially set up for this recent research, as well as the MHF ongoing study into the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the nation’s mental health, the two charities have built up a broad picture of older people’s experiences over the past 18 months and therefore are in a position to recommend the best course of action to safeguard their mental health at this time.
The new report will call on all public health authorities in the UK to create and release mental health campaigns that are specifically tailored to reach older people. This is especially important as awareness (and use) of NHS mental health services, including counselling is particularly low among older people, despite the fact that research suggests they benefit from it more than other age demographics.
As well as this, Independent Age and MHF are encouraging places such as supermarkets, hairdressers, faith centres and other places where older adults spend their time, to advertise and promote bereavement support, especially since many of these people might not research the availability of this support online.
The final recommendation then, is to urge national governments, local authorities and care home providers to work collaboratively to increase the number of older adults who can use the internet by offering digital skills and confidence training. The MHF and Independent Age believe that this could help to ‘counter some people’s loneliness, which undermines their mental and physical health.’
Mark Rowland, Chief Executive of the MHF has said: “While some older people have found ways of coping, such as drawing on past experiences of adversity, experiencing enhanced support from neighbours, family and friends, and spending time in nature, others have faced serious challenges and suffered as a result.”
“Fear, loneliness, bereavement, lack of social contact, the inability to do the things that previously benefited their mental and physical health, loss of face-to-face contact and the death of people close to them, have all affected their lives and mental health.”
Speaking on the gap between the ability of some older people to access support or to connect with loved ones via the internet, Mr Rowland said, “Similarly, while some have enjoyed the virtual connection conferred by digital technology, others have not, disliking it as a means of contact, or lacking the skills and/or equipment to benefit from it. In addition, Christmas can be a very lonely time for them and increase feelings of isolation."
“Older people should be involved in identifying what will help their recovery and have a choice in how it occurs. Connection and relationships are crucial to this, and must be valued and enabled in creative and flexible ways.”