COVID-19: Effects of Isolation on Elderly People

As countries worldwide are affected by Covid-19, the elderly population is being told to self-isolate for a very long time. This is an attempt to shield the elderly and also to protect the overburdened health systems as the countries enforce curfews, lockdowns, and social isolation in order to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
However, it is a well-known fact that social isolation among the older populations is a serious public health concern because of their greater risk of autoimmune, cardiovascular, neurocognitive, and mental health problems. Santini and colleagues published a study and demonstrated that social disconnection puts older adults at a higher risk of anxiety and depression.
Online technologies can be harnessed to offer social support networks and a sense of belonging to the elder population. Interventions can simply involve more frequent telephone conversations with significant others, family, close friends, voluntary organizations or health-care professionals, or community outreach projects that provide peer support throughout the enforced isolation. Beyond these interventions, cognitive-behavioral therapies can be delivered online to reduce loneliness and improve mental well being in elderly people.

Hucu.ai facilitates remote care effectively.

It is true that isolating the elderly can reduce the transmission of the virus, and minimize the spread in high-risk groups. However, isolation strategies are increasingly difficult to maintain over time. Such mitigation measures have to be effective in preventing transmission and avoiding increasing morbidity of Covid-19 associated with affective disorders. This effect will be felt the most in more disadvantaged populations which should be the urgent target for the implementation of preventive strategies as discussed before.
There is also an online study named “PROTECT” going on by the University of Exeter and King’s College London which has recruited almost 25,000 people. The aim of the project is to help study the impact of Covid-19 isolation on the health and wellbeing of the elderly population and to find new methods of supporting them. This new arm of the NIHR-funded study will track the physical and mental health impacts of lockdown policies on the older people by putting together a questionnaire to seek the experiences of the cohort as a result of the forced isolation.
This investigation came after it was found that half of the adults above 55 years have experienced mental health problems even before the lockdown. Meanwhile, previous pandemics have resulted in a high rise of mental health issues like self-harm, suicide, alcoholism, and more. The ultimate goal of PROTECT’S study is to design new methods to support people through the lockdown and isolation phase which remains a harsh reality for many older people who are sheltering in place.

Hucu.ai’s Family Messaging feature lets senior residents stay in touch with loved ones.

Elderly people often face issues like financial insecurity and loneliness as they deal with major life changes which can increase the risk of mental illnesses. They also face barriers to access services. All of this is being worsened during the coronavirus pandemic around the world.
In the PROTECT study, researchers are questioning the cohort about their experience of self-isolation and the immediate impact on their mental health. It will have questions about their mental health during the pandemic, how many times they leave the house, the extent of isolation practices they are observing, their care responsibilities, and the level of loneliness they feel. This information will be used to identify future support interventions and methods.
The study includes a battery of cognitive tests that will allow the researchers to explore any impact on brain functions over the longer term. The study is funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre (BRC). Dr. Byron Creese, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Exeter said:
“Repurposing the PROTECT study means we can find out about the impacts of self-isolation on the mental health of people aged 50 and over, using a large-scale long-term study. It’s critical that people stay at home and follow government guidance, and by joining PROTECT, you could help us understand the wider impacts of doing this. Weeks or months of adhering to isolation policy could have a really significant impact on the mental health and wellbeing of older people, particularly on top of the loneliness and isolation that some older adults already experience. Over the longer term, we will also be able to tell if these policies have any impact on memory, and whether these policies have any impact on mental health.
Our Protect study provides us with a unique opportunity to explore in depth the consequences of social isolation on mental health and well-being. We will also explore whether certain coping mechanisms are more efficient than others to maintain mental health and wellbeing. This will provide a window into potential interventions to help elderly people facing social consequence.”
Clive Ballard, Professor of Age-Related Diseases at the University of Exeter Medical School, said that previous pandemics have taught us that these situations can have a significant impact on mental health. During SARS, we saw a 30 per cent increase in suicide, and a rise in self-harm and alcoholism. Older people currently have to endure unprecedented periods of isolation in order to protect themselves, and we urgently need to develop new ways to support their mental health through this period.

Is Isolation only Affecting the Older Generation?

Well, the older generation is more at risk of developing mental illnesses, cognitive decline and other problems because of the age and pre-existing conditions. However, it is also true that isolation will affect all people at some level.
In the article Health Effects of Social Isolation and Loneliness by Clifford Singer, MD, it is discussed how we are a social species and we need social interaction to survive. Humans have social networks (families, tribes, communities, etc.) that enable us to survive and thrive. Our survival was served by the evolutionary development of behaviors and physiologic mechanisms (neural, hormonal, cellular, genetic) that support social interactions (Cacioppo et al., 2011). But as with all human traits, there is also variation in our social behaviors and needs. The fact is, most of us are psychologically and biologically “programmed” to need social networks. It is logical that social isolation may impose stress on our minds and bodies that have a significant impact on health.
While many adults are more proficient at using digital resources to stay in contact with friends and family,older people may not have as many resources, so it affects them much more.
Thus, urgent actions are required to mitigate the mental and physical health challenges that will result from instructing the elderly people to remain at home, have groceries and medicines delivered, and to avoid all forms of physical social contact with family and friends.
Self-isolation will disproportionately affect elderly individuals who go out of home for social contacts such as going to daycare venues, places of worship, or community centers. Those who do not have close family and friends, and rely on the support of voluntary services or social care can be placed at additional risk, along with those who are already isolated, lonely or secluded.
It would be interesting to note how governments tackle this problem with different support programs while sticking with the isolation policy for elderly people.
Sources of information: cdc.gov/aging, exeter.ac.uk, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
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