Coronavirus: the forgotten symptoms
Alejandra Tapai reports on the repercussions of enforced isolation on the mental health of the elderly.
Coronavirus is taking one of the most precious generations in our societies. In Italy and Spain, more than 80% of deaths have been of people older than 70. That we have not been able to share their last moments with them and care for them in the close manner we would have is one of the greatest tragedies of the chaotic situation in which we are living.
Because of this age factor in the death rate of COVID-19, care homes are seeing their resident population decimated. In England and Wales 13.5% of care homes have had confirmed cases of coronavirus. Taking into account that this data is only preliminary, the figure is truly alarming, although not surprising. Furthermore, almost 30% of the deaths that took place in care homes in March and April were due to COVID-19. Most of them died in hospitals, however, many others did so in the loneliness of their rooms. In Spain there have been numerous cases of collapsed care homes in which the sick residents could not be taken to already overcrowded hospitals.
If only in relation to their physical health, we should be paying more attention to the mental health of the elderly, especially in care homes.
A study in 2009 on loneliness in the elderly shows its physical manifestations and the ways in which it can be prevented. All of them are either unsafe to carry out or precluded by lockdown measures. A weakened immune system is one of the effects of loneliness, which can cause those who suffer from it to, in turn, be more prone to contracting the virus and its symptoms. If only in relation to their physical health, we should be paying more attention to the mental health of the elderly, especially in care homes.
Visiting our relatives in care homes is one of the most recommended ways of preventing loneliness, as well as diminishing the symptoms of diseases like dementia. Physical and personal contact with people they know is one of the favourite activities of care home residents. However, this is no longer an option due to the high risk of spreading the virus. Many of us choose to put aside our desire to visit our grandparents in order to protect them from coronavirus. But, are we putting them at higher risk of mental health problems that might deteriorate their overall health?
Of course, care home carers do an incredible job. However, it is no secret that the situation in which they are currently working does not favour close personal care. The uncertainty of these times affects older generations differently, many lacking the understanding of what really is going on due to sickness or age. Being unable to leave their rooms and have contact with other people is therefore a great strain. Although it is not only lack of family visits that can cause such strain. Many other activities, including volunteering and inter-generational projects are suspended as the containment of the virus is rightly prioritised.
Nonetheless, many worry that their elders are still vulnerable to other illnesses which they may have to suffer with alone without seeing their loved ones. The aggravation of dementia-like conditions is also a devastating reality as lockdown has extended and disorientation symptoms appear as a consequence.
Many countries, like Spain, are prioritising the needs of this group so that alleviation measures can be safely applied to them. For instance, by setting periods of time in which different age groups can go out for a walk and preventing the contact of high risk groups with the rest of the population.
Here the debate is not one of quality versus quantity of life, it is about how protecting physical health can and is deteriorating mental health. The only possible solution while trying to maintain an equilibrium between both is ensuring that any decision taken prioritises the well-being of the residents of care homes and the elderly. Our elderly generation is now under threat amidst chaos and isolation.