Loneliness and social isolation due to an extended lock-down could increase the mental and physical vulnerabilities of the more than 400,000 New Zealanders aged over 70, an elder care expert warns.

Dr Hamish Jamieson is a University of Otago, Christchurch researcher and geriatrician. He says while COVID-19 is a real threat to the health of older people, the impact of loneliness, social isolation and having less contact with their GP could also be dangerous.

“Although we may move into a Level Three lock-down today, it is still recommended that older people will need to continue to stay isolated. This can take a real toll on both their physical and mental health,” says Dr Jamieson.

While this could mean more freedom of movement for the majority of New Zealanders, the more than 400,000 Kiwis aged over 70 will still likely face isolation at home. At Level 3, the Government strongly advised those aged over 70 or with vulnerabilities such as existing health conditions to remain at home to avoid contracting COVID-19.

With older people likely to be in lock-down for much longer than the general population, there is an urgent need for nationally-co-ordinated initiatives that safeguard their mental and physical health and keep them connected to the world, Dr Jamieson says.

“We need to start thinking differently about the vulnerable people in our communities. A local Government co-ordinated approach from those who are not currently working, such as staff who usually work at gyms and swimming pools, could be essential in saving the lives of the older people who may have no one to talk to.”

Auckland Libraries have already rolled out this initiative, whose staff are currently contacting isolated older people while their facilities are closed. Age Concern and the Student Volunteer Army are also checking-in with older people around the country, but there are many more isolated individuals that will be missed, says Dr Jamieson.

Dr Jamieson says loneliness and social isolation are linked to a number of poor health outcomes and often prematurely force otherwise well older people into rest homes.

A study by Dr Jamieson and colleagues, published in 2017, found one in five elderly New Zealanders described themselves as being ‘chronically lonely’. This number is likely to increase under extended lock-down conditions for the elderly, he says.

“If you are socially isolated and lonely you are more at risk of depression and anxiety, and some chronic conditions, such as pain, can become worse,’’ he says.

Another study by Dr Jamieson and his colleagues, published last year, found older people who described themselves as lonely were almost 20 per cent more likely than others to move into a rest home, even when physically well.

Dr Jamieson praised the Government for spreading the message that people should definitely seek medical care for non-COVID illnesses, and not be put off by a fear of contracting the virus. He hopes older people hear and heed the message.

“COVID-19 is getting a lot of headlines but the numbers are low compared to the general population. Of equal importance is the general health of older people and they should not neglect this, including letting their GP know about any issues with their health from ongoing problems.”

“Older people can still continue with their daily walks, gardening, and video-chats if this is possible. If you know someone is living alone, don’t hesitate to contact them – the day-to-day contact is becoming increasingly more important throughout this time of isolation,” says Dr Jamieson.

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