Millions of isolated older people facing ‘potential public health emergency’


Millions of older people are facing a potential public health emergency as they struggle alone, physically and mentally deteriorate and cannot properly grieve during the coronavirus pandemic, a charity has warned.

Covid-19 has “hit the fast-forward button on ageing”, with a substantial group of people left “frightened, depressed and very much alone”, Age UK said.

As cases rise, the charity said it hopes the Government will resist “ageist siren calls” to shut older people away.

A survey for the charity of 1,364 people over the age of 60 in September found that more than a third feel more anxious (34%) and less motivated to do things they enjoy (36%) since the start of the pandemic.

Around a quarter (26%) said they cannot walk as far as they used to, a fifth (20%) are finding their memory has declined, and 18% are feeling less steady on their feet.

Almost two thirds (64%) now feel less confident in taking public transport, and a quarter (26%) feel less confident in spending time with family.

The charity is launching a winter resilience campaign to help boost older people’s health and morale.

It collected testimonies from older people and their families, with one older man saying he feels like a “prisoner in my own home”, and the partner of another saying the pandemic has “stolen his freedom and life”.

One woman, aged between 70 and 74, said: “I have cancer. To get up day after day knowing that you can’t see the people who you love is extremely hard. This might be my last summer or last year of my life and I can’t do the things that make me happy.”

Another respondent, the relative of a widower in his 90s, said: “He was already quite lonely after my nan died, and worked hard to forge new friendships at 89.

“He then had these friendships completely removed from him during the pandemic and was therefore left very isolated… He has stopped eating and believes it may be physical but I have a feeling that he is now suffering from deep depression.”

Age UK said a “sizeable minority” of older people are finding life incredibly tough, with those already ill or living with long-term health conditions most likely to report challenges.

Many older people are living with “increased and sometimes devastating” levels of anxiety, afraid to go out because they are at serious risk from the virus.

And months of reduced exercise has led to muscle weakness and mobility problems, while cognitive decline is believed to have been exacerbated by the isolation caused by the pandemic.

Reluctance to eat was a commonly reported symptom, alongside instances of self-neglect such as not washing or taking care of their appearance.

Families fear their loved ones will not be able to regain the mobility, confidence and mental health they once had.

And significant numbers of older people reported feeling deeply apprehensive about how they will cope over winter, and in the longer term.

Caroline Abrahams, Age UK’s charity director, said: “This pandemic is tough for everyone, but older people have the added anxiety of knowing that for them the risks of catching Covid-19 are higher.

“We have rightly heard a lot about the enormous problems facing older people in care homes, but this new research reveals that life is extremely challenging for many cooped up for month after month in their own homes too.

“According to this research, as many as a third of all older people really are struggling and given the reluctance of this age group to admit their difficulties and ask for help, we suspect that in reality the numbers affected are considerably higher – running into millions without doubt.”

She added: “Fear of the virus, loss of mental and physical capacity, loneliness and isolation, and an inability to grieve as normal for those they have lost add up to a potential public health emergency affecting many older people.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “We know the huge impact this pandemic is having on many older people, and we remain committed to supporting those at higher risk, including prioritising them for testing and doing everything possible to support the clinically extremely vulnerable in order to protect their health.

“NHS services have adapted to remain open throughout this time so those most in need continue to receive high quality care and we also provided £10.2m to national and local mental health charities to support those affected.”