For older Australians, the pandemic is terrifying.
Despite the warnings sounded in NSW, and around the world, the virus has gotten into nursing homes in Victoria, with more than 250 residents infected.
It’s found an easy target in the aged care sector, so underfunded and poorly-regulated despite years of royal commissions and inquiries and scathing reports.
During the next fortnight, many will die. So far, the majority of the 167 Australians who have died of COVID-19 are men over 70.
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And yet despite all the statistics, and the aged care horror stories, older Australians feel they’ve been abandoned and ignored during the pandemic.
Lives cut short by uncertainty
Since the start of the pandemic, National Seniors has been collecting the stories of older Australians, documenting their fears and concerns about a year like no other.
As the virus progressed, and the lockdown shut down Australia, people felt their lives becoming increasingly difficult, National Seniors CEO John McCallum told Crikey.
“At the start of the pandemic, the main thing they were telling us was that shopping was getting really annoying and unfair,” McCallum said
“Then it became the serious of issue of people caring for their partners who couldn’t get medication easily, people who couldn’t get around.”
The lockdown also meant visits to aged care facilities were restricted. We were urged not to visit older loved ones; some doctors said it might be six months before it would be safe to visit grandparents.
All of this further added to the anxiety and isolation felt by older Australians. As one respondent to the Seniors’ Australia reported put it:
Older Australians know they are going to pass but to have your life cut short earlier by uncertainty is scary, worrying, stressful, causes heightened anxiety and feelings of being lost without any direction.
McCallum says the lockdown was particularly difficult for those without good digital literacy, who suffered greatly from the sudden loss of much-needed contact.
“People who weren’t digitally connected were genuinely isolated. After five or six weeks of it, you get quite lonely.”
Not everyone lives in aged care
The pandemic has highlighted the huge risk faced by residents in aged care facilities. But it’s also made life harder and scarier for people who live in the community.
Many of them are just as vulnerable to the virus. But they also rely heavily on support from family and the community. A 2017 report estimated unpaid carers provided $60 billion worth of support for older people per year.
When that support dried up because of the lockdown, many older people living in the community said they were left feeling forgotten.
“They’ve got no support, no access to proper PPE [personal protective equipment], and no priority for testing — they have to queue up just like everyone else,” McCallum said.
And so, in a case of the urgent overwhelming the important, many older Australians simply had to wait it out through a terrifying, isolating and uncertain period of lockdown. Now, the situation in Victoria has brought back that fear, with a second wave that is far nastier and more deeply embedded in the community than the first.
As we do our best to flatten the curve, and keep an eye on the situation in aged care, McCallum says we have to make sure the voices of older Australians aren’t forgotten.