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Isolated by covid, anxiety on the rise among elderly

Most sit by the phone all day, waiting for a call from family, finds new survey to mark Elder Abuse Awareness Day

A medic administers a covid-19 vaccine to a elderly woman in Kolkata on 13 June. Close to 40% of those surveyed by HelpAge India were yet to receive their first dose
A medic administers a covid-19 vaccine to a elderly woman in Kolkata on 13 June. Close to 40% of those surveyed by HelpAge India were yet to receive their first dose (PTI)

Loneliness and anxiety among senior citizens, who live by themselves in metro cities that barely pause to breathe, is neither new nor uncommon. Covid-19 and consequent lockdowns worsened it for this vulnerable population. A new survey finds that an overwhelming majority miss the simple routines and joys like going for a walk and nearly half have seen a drop in incomes caused by job losses in their families. These are some of the findings of a six-city survey ‘The Silent Tormentor: Covid 19 & the Elderly’ conducted by HelpAge India, an organisation working for rights of senior citizens, to mark World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.

Also read: India's invisible generation fights loneliness strain

“Some of the responses of the senior citizens are heartrending. They wait by the phone hoping someone would call them,” Prakash Borgaonkar, head of HelpAge India for Maharashtra and Goa, told Mint Lounge, adding that it was important to focus on the emotional needs of the elderly. “Communication between younger generation and older is really a challenge, whether they are in a family or at old age home. It could be because the stresses of work from home increased but overall gap in communication widened during the pandemic.”

Mapping parameters such as elder abuse, loss of income, medical issues, emotional challenges and vaccination, the survey was conducted with a sample size of 3,526 respondents across Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Chennai, by a professional agency, Ipsos Research Private Limited. The survey covered senior citizens, most of them men, who lived with families, by themselves and in old age homes.

To quote from the report: “A feeling of despondency prevails amongst most elders since the pandemic started, with many waiting for people to call them (35.7%), spending most of their time resting (36.5%), the day seeming to be too long for them (22.6%), wanting someone to be just with them (20.5%) and feeling trapped and frustrated (13.7%). 63.2% elders said that the lockdown has affected their communication with friends, families, neighbours and loved ones.” Some of the statements that are quoted in the report include: “I find myself waiting for people to call more than ever before” (56.7%); “Some days I spend most of the time resting” (54.7%); “I want someone to just be with me” (30.3%) and “The days seem to last too long” (26.4%).

Also read: West Bengal's club of covid fighters

Borgaonkar said that while the maximum abuse – verbal or physical – was caused by a son, followed by a daughter-in-law, they were surprised to find elders reporting abuse from daughters, which was not seen in previous years. He emphasised that covid-19 had impacted families at multiple levels – from financial to emotional and the elderly bore the brunt of it.

Elderly people sit on the banks of the Ganga in Prayagraj. Loneliness and being cut off from their regular routines affected the elderly the most.
Elderly people sit on the banks of the Ganga in Prayagraj. Loneliness and being cut off from their regular routines affected the elderly the most. (AP)

Several factors aggravated their anxiety—being isolated at home, not having access to or the habit of using smart phones, and most importantly, being the most vulnerable group when it comes to contracting the virus. A fifth of those surveyed had lost someone they knew to covid and 46.8% were afraid of getting infected.

“The most worrisome thing about getting infected with covid-19 was isolation and quarantine (60.6%), hospitalization (62.2%), abandonment by caretakers/family members (22.9%) and non-availability of oxygen (21.3%) amongst others,” the report notes.

Also read: How covid-19 changed the lives of the elderly

During the second wave, HelpAge India’s Elder Helpline received more than 1,000 calls relating to elder abuse, violence and disputes, an increase of 18% from the first. The helpline received almost 20,000 calls in total in the second wave, a 36% increase since the first, with calls about counselling increasing by 111% and requests for income support by 54%.

The survey also covered caregivers, and their responses are telling, especially in cases of job losses and fear of contracting covid-19. Income was a challenge for both – elderly and their caregivers. More than half of those who had a source of income reported a decrease. “The main reasons of reduced income due to the pandemic included ‘loss of job of a family member’ (34.9%), ‘loss in the business due to lockdown’ (33.8%), and ‘pay cut of a family member’ (30.2%). Across the cities the primary reason for reduced income included ‘pay cut of a family member’ in Bengaluru (49.8%), ‘loss of job of a family member’ in Delhi (49.7%) and in Kolkata (34.6%), and ‘loss in the business due to lockdown’ in Hyderabad (44.6%), Chennai (35.1) and Mumbai (32%),” it observes.

When it came to old age homes and services, 60% of caregivers reported that access to food, groceries and medicines was difficult. “36.9% said that the old age home did not get any help in accessing the above goods/services/benefits. 50% old age homes said they faced Scarcity of Funds during the pandemic,” the report says. Caregivers themselves worried about losing their jobs as well as getting infected.

Also read: Have you been at your worst with kids during the pandemic?

Now as the second wave starts to taper and cases are decreasing by the day, the issue of vaccination assumes greater importance, especially before the third wave. Almost 40% of those surveyed were yet to receive the first dose. “While 58.2% elders were aware that a vaccine had been developed, 41.8% were not aware that any vaccine has been developed… It was heartening to see that 66.6% elders had got at least one dose of their vaccination, though gaps remain, as 39.4% elders had not.” Borgaonkar said that most senior citizens were aware of the covid appropriate behaviour and were largely confined to homes since the start of the pandemic as a precautionary measure.

Even though a large number expressed fear of contracting the infection, “about three-fourth (74.1%) of the elderly believed that they would be able to get back to their normal lifestyle as it was before once the pandemic ends.” That is in keeping with 80% of those surveyed missing “going out for a walk” and wishing they could do that soon.

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