The elderly once again have to suffer through the effects of Covid-19-imposed isolation for their own safety. What options do over-60s have to preserve a sense of community while remaining safe?
WORDS: STAFF REPORTER
As arguably the socio demographic group most at risk of falling severely ill or even losing their lives after contracting Covid-19, there’s no doubt that the over-60s have been the worst affected by the pandemic. However, the negative impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the older generation reaches beyond threats to their physical health. “The elderly are not only battling the physical health effects of the virus, they’re also facing the toll that the virus has taken on their mental health – thanks to Covid 19 imposed isolation,” explains Gus van der Spek, property developer and owner of life rights company Manor Life.
“Many elderly people across South Africa live alone and had already been struggling with feelings of isolation and loneliness before the pandemic began, but with the very real threat of Covid-19, these issues only worsened.” Loneliness and social isolation for those not living in retirement communities is a well-documented issue facing the older generation, brought on by factors such as the loss of a partner, having family emigrate, losing touch with friends and withdrawing from community activities. “The physical and mental health risks to elderly people living in isolation are numerous: it increases the risk of premature death, dementia and is associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide,” explains Van der Spek.
The threat of Covid-19 forces even elderly people with community ties and family nearby to go into isolation. Government communication urges over-60s to stay home as much as possible and family members and friends need to stay away to reduce the risk of infecting the more vulnerable older generation. Churches and other community centres – which form the basis of many of these individuals” social lives – have to close their doors as well. “To add to this, while the rest of the world turns to technology as a tool to keep them connected to loved ones, many elderly people struggle to adapt to these tools, especially those who live alone with no one around to walk them through it,” he says.
Community living as a lifeline
Thankfully, not all over-60s are left to grapple with the physical and mental challenges of Covid-19 on their own. “Those residing in retirement communities are able to interact with their friends and friendly staff members on a daily basis,” he says. While it’s true that nursing homes and frail-care centres are hit particularly hard by Covid-19 as they are often the location for concentrated outbreaks, Van der Spek explains that this is an unfortunate result of the close-living conditions in these facilities and the underlying health conditions typically found in nursing home and frail care residents.
“However, those who have opted to live in retirement lifestyle villages and estates are able to isolate in their own units, with plenty of space to themselves while still interacting safely ‘masked-up’ with other residents and staff outdoors when necessary. “Residents of these kinds of retirement communities are able to have the best of both worlds – they have the safety of their own units rather than a single room in close contact with other sick people, and they are able to interact with their neighbours safely outdoors within the boundaries of a safe, access controlled environment.”
More senior living options
Loneliness, boredom and social isolation become a reality as you age, particularly if you’re stuck behind high walls in the suburbs, nursing a spouse, or no longer able to drive, says Garry Reed, managing director, Evergreen Lifestyle Villages. This influences the mental health of the elderly. “However, retirement villages are home to vibrant communities of elderly people who are keen to make new friendships, to stay active, and even to learn new skills. There’s always something to do, and someone to do it with.
In addition, for those who may have a partner who ends up suffering from dementia, top class assistance is on hand, allowing you to share the onerous burden of care,” he says. Van der Spek, who is in the process of developing Wytham Estate, an over-60s retirement lifestyle village in Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs, says he was partly motivated by the desire to combat isolation among the elderly and to give them a home that promotes overall wellbeing. “Research indicates that community living has proven to significantly improve the physical and mental health and happiness of the older generation, and we’re proud that our estate will soon be a part of those efforts.”
According to Van der Spek, there are a few ways in which living in retirement lifestyle estates helps to combat elderly isolation:
1. An abundance of new friends close by. While there are obviously more ways to connect with your friends and neighbours without the threat of Covid-19, it’s still possible to socialise with your neighbours outdoors, with masks on and while 1,5m apart.
2. Staff on hand to talk through needs. If residents are feeling lonely or that they have no one to talk to about their emotions, they know that professional staff are always on hand to listen and offer solutions where possible.
3. Assistance with connecting to loved ones. Many elderly people desperately want to video-chat with family and friends who they can’t see in person, but they are unsure of how to go about it. The estate’s staff can help get them set up and comfortable with using these tools.
4. Beautiful grounds in which to socialise safely outdoors. If you’re not comfortable interacting closely with other people yet but would still like to see them and wave hello, many retirement villages feature beautiful gardens so that you don’t have to be stuck inside on your own all day.
5. Access to top medical practitioners who can spot signs of loneliness in the elderly before it escalates. As feelings of isolation can lead to depression, anxiety and even thoughts of suicide, it’s important to have access to medical practitioners who can identify and treat these symptoms.
6. Smart technology that keeps a watchful eye. Some retirement villages use smart technology such as sensors in the floor next to the resident’s bed to monitor whether they’ve gotten up that day. This is primarily used as a way to detect if a resident is ill but could also be used as a way to detect symptoms of depression.
“Finally, once the threat of Covid-19 subsides, most retirement lifestyle villages and estates will organise regular community events and activities to encourage socialisation among residents and ensure that there’s a strong sense of community to combat feelings of loneliness and isolation,” Van der Spek concludes.