Many groups are especially vulnerable during this Covid-19 pandemic, especially senior citizens.
“Mortality for this virus gets higher with age mainly because age is a proxy for other conditions such as Diabetes Mellitus (that compromises one’s immune system), respiratory diseases and heart disease. Data from China shows that more than 80% of those who died were aged over 60 years.
“A study of more than 44,000 patients by the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention also showed that patients older than 80 who were infected with Covid-19 had a 15% chance of dying – far higher than the general estimated mortality. Similar patterns are also seen in Italy, ” says Prof Dr Noran Mohd Hairi of Univerisiti Malaya’s Department of Social and Preventive Medicine.
Making sure that older adults are safe is therefore of paramount importance, say experts.
Social distancing must be practised and any relative, family member or friend who comes into contact with older individuals must make sure that they are not putting them at risk.
We can still provide support to the our parents and grandparents during this time of social distancing but we need to take precautions. The less contact they have with other people or the community, the less the risk of them getting the virus.
“If there is already a family member taking care of our elderly, in our hometowns, we should not travel back to visit them as this will increase their risk of getting exposed to the virus.
“If a family member does go out to get essential items, they must take precautions when they return home. This is especially so for healthcare workers in hospitals, ” says Assoc Prof Dr Rafdzah Ahmad Zaki, a public health specialist at UM’s Centre of Epidemiology and Evidence-Based Practice.
For Dawn Ling, keeping her 96-year-old grandfather, James Jeremiah, safe is her biggest concern during this pandemic.
“At his age, his immunity is weaker and ability to heal is much slower. My greatest concern is that people are not taking this seriously.
“Everyone needs to stay away from my grandpa. Instead people are being very inconsiderate. Some family friends and relatives are going on house visits, bringing other friends and relatives with them. This is not the time. This is not Christmas! They might see this as just a normal flu but for a 96-year-old, it is deadly, ” stresses Ling.
Because she lives in KL and her grandfather and mother in Penang, Ling is even more anxious as she isn’t able to look after them.
“All I can do is call twice a day, minimum, and nag them to wash their hands and to not have visitors. I have even posted a note on my Facebook page which I know is visible to my relatives so that they stay away, ” says Ling, 33, a public relations manager.
For seniors who live on their own, staying put at home may be an issue as they need to shop for essentials like groceries, medicines and toiletries. In the wake of the pandemic, community groups and non-government organisations have stepped up to deliver necessities for the elderly.
Now, more than ever, seniors who live by themselves need the support of their families, carers and community.
“They might need support for their daily chores such as cleaning or preparing meals. However, it is important that anyone who comes into contact with them wear appropriate protective gear as advised by the health authorities, ” says Dr Rafdzah.
Staying in touch with seniors is also important to ensure they immediately seek medical attention should they have any of the symptoms of the virus, she says.
“Even if they have mild symptoms, they must be taken care of before it progresses to a more serious and critical stage, ” says Dr Rafdzah.
Health ministry director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said that most of the Covid-19 related deaths in the country have been due to late treatment. There are five stages of Covid-19 but most patients come to the hospital at Stage 3, when they have some form of pneumonia but do not require respiratory aid. Staying in touch
While it is crucial that seniors stay home and away from risk of infection, Dr Noran emphasises the need for families to call their parents and relatives (not call on them) regularly.
“Pick up the phone and chat with them. Just ask them how they are, ” she says.
Experts emphasise the need to constantly be in touch with the elderly to keep track of how they are coping.
“The old fashion telephone is very important. You can hear something in a person’s voice that cannot be detected in an email, ” says Stacey Torres, a sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco in a New York Times article, “Take Steps to Counter Loneliness of Social Distancing”.
Some seniors are already ahead of the game. The Social Connect Group, a senior citizens group in SS20 in Petaling Jaya suspended all their group outdoor activities in early February.
“We weighed the pros and cons after the situation in Wuhan became serious and decided to temporarily stop our park dancing sessions until the situation got better.
“We were cautious because our group was very big, often more than 70 people and we couldn’t keep participants out just because of their travel history, ” says Datin Lim Ah Lan, a resident and member of the group.
Instead, the group chat on WhatsApp and share dance and exercise videos for each other to follow from their homes.
“Because we don’t meet, there are hundreds of messages flying around in the different WhatsApp groups. We have to be careful because we are a seniors’ group, ” she says.
What’s worrying our seniors
Joanna Pillai has been playing the villain since the movement control order was imposed more than a week ago. Every morning, she stops her elderly mother from going out for her daily walk or visiting her friends who live “just down the road”. Her 75-year-old mother argues that she is healthy and will “only be out for a short while”, but Joanna isn’t willing to take any chances.
Joanna isn’t the only frustrated family member.
“Old habits die hard, ” says gerontologist Lily Fu. “Old people have fixed mindsets. Those who are in general good health are not alarmed by the speed of infection and severity of the disease. They need to be shown the Covid-19 statistics of each state, where the red zones are and how close they are to these zones.
“They need to hear about local cases involving older people. They need to be aware that they could easily be infected and that they in turn can infect their elderly friends or other family members.
“They need to hear from authoritative public figures they know, trust and believe.”
Although the blithe attitude to social distancing isn’t limited to the elderly – many news reports and social media posts show younger people flaunting the MCO too – Dr Noran says that it can be particularly frustrating for seniors.
“Social distancing can be frustrating. I know that my parents are getting bored being unable to go to the mosque for their daily prayers.
“But these are unprecedented times. Encourage our parents to do things they enjoy, move around and do simple exercise, keep a journal, explore hobbies.
“And, always wash hands with soap and water. Eat healthy, well-balanced meals and get enough sleep, ” orders the doctor.
Apart from not being able to move about freely outside their homes, senior citizens are also anxious about the barrage of news and information about the pandemic, most of which aren’t hopeful - particularly for people in their age group.
“Our mortality occupies our thoughts much more these days. There is hardly any comforting news for older people.
“There is constant reminders that older people are the most vulnerable to Covid-19.
“It also doesn’t help to know that in Italy, doctors are forced to decide who gets critical care.
“And guess who are not at the top of the priority list? Those above 80. Now this has been lowered to 60. Ageism exists in who gets to live and who doesn’t, ” adds Fu.
Many seniors found the news “depressing” as the lives of senior citizens are considered less valuable.
“Age should not be a criteria. There are older people who are still actively contributing to the economy and society, ” she says.
She points out that the biggest concern and attention should on the elderly in the B40 category who live in low-cost housing areas who have to do without much support.
“The most at-risk group are the elderly living alone.
“During MCO, no visitors or even social workers drop by. NGOs, religious groups and those with money to do good should step in and see where their help is needed.
“Having strong religious faith or a belief system will help to provide psychological and spiritual comfort during these trying times, ” she says.