While staying at home as much as possible is the best way to reduce the risk of catching COVID-19, doing so has led to other serious physical and mental health problems in older people, says charity Age UK.
Many older individuals are understandably deeply afraid of coronavirus, and this is leading to stress, uncertainty and loneliness. And months of being cooped up at home have worsened physical problems for some, says the charity which surveyed nearly 2,000 older people and their loved ones.*
Caroline Abrahams, Age UK’s charity director, said: ‘This pandemic has hit the fast-forward button on ageing for millions of older people. Helping them to get through this winter demands a collective effort, the right policies and support from government, especially for those who are shielding, self-isolating or who lack a strong network of family and friends.’
Fear of leaving the house
As older people are at greater risk of becoming seriously ill with coronavirus, it perhaps isn’t surprising that the pandemic has taken an emotional toll. The Age UK report found that more than a third of respondents said they felt more anxious compared with six months ago. These feelings can have real consequences and lead to older people feeling even more isolated.
Many older adults said that even during the summer when restrictions were eased, they were too afraid to go out. And nearly half of people over the age of 70 said they are ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘very uncomfortable’ leaving their house because of the pandemic.
Depression and self-neglect
Some older people told the charity that they no longer got pleasure from activities they usually enjoy – a hallmark symptom of depression. In some cases, low mood was even leading to self-neglect with older people not washing, eating or cleaning their house.
One respondent said his older relative stopped eating during the pandemic when he wasn’t able to see his friends. He said: ‘I have a feeling that he is now suffering from deep depression.’
Older people shouldn’t have to suffer in silence. If you’ve been feeling down for several weeks, it’s a good idea to speak to your GP.
Low energy and walking problems
We can all relate to feeling tired during the pandemic. But lethargy can be a real problem for older people who may already struggle with low energy levels. Exhaustion can have a real impact on daily tasks, such as getting dressed, showering and preparing meals. A third of older people Age UK spoke to said they had less energy compared with six months ago.
One respondent, who reported new symptoms of lethargy, weakness and walking problems in the past six months said she feels her ‘life has been cut short’. Another said not being able to do the exercise she would usually do made her osteoporosis worse and led to her suffering a fractured vertebra.
Worryingly, one in four older people said they are unable to walk as far as they could before the pandemic. And one in five feel less steady on their feet.
These figures aren’t good news. Falls are already common in later life and can cause serious injuries. Even a mild trip can leave someone losing their confidence and becoming less independent.
Many falls in older people happen for reasons that may be ‘avoidable’. But there are some simple things you can do to reduce the chances of a fall.
Four ways older people can stay well this winter
Winter can be particularly tough for older people. As we age, we feel the cold more often and are more likely to develop health problems related to cold weather, such as frostbite, hypothermia and respiratory problems.
With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, this winter could be trickier than normal, but there are things you can do to ensure you’re as safe and comfortable as possible.
1. Stay up to date with coronavirus advice
It can be unsettling when the official coronavirus advice keeps changing. But we’re here to provide up-to-date advice on what you can do to stay safe and avoid feeling isolated during this difficult period.
2. Keep warm and eat regularly
Keeping warm can help you stay well. Heat your bedroom and living room to a temperature that feels comfortable. Try to have at least one hot meal a day.
Age UK recommends if you are struggling with big meals, try eating little and often. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids too.
3. Take some gentle exercise
Staying active can help you stay independent and healthy as you get older. It can even increase your energy levels.
It might be harder to get out and about at the moment, but there are plenty of gentle workouts you can try from home. Staying active will also generate heat to keep you warmer on cold days.
4. Get your flu jab
If you’re over the age of 65, you’re entitled to a free annual flu jab to reduce the risk of a nasty illness in winter. This year, flu vaccination will also help to reduce pressure on the health and care systems dealing with coronavirus.
Don’t be nervous about getting the jab. Be assured that GP surgeries and pharmacies have made changes to ensure it’s safe for patients to attend.
*The research was made up of an Age UK social media survey in August completed by nearly 570 people and representative online polling of 1,364 people over the age of 60 by Kantar Polling in September 2020.