The corona pandemic affects everyone – but older people in particular are counted among the risk groups for COVID-19 disease. We advise you what senior citizens should be aware of in times of SARS-CoV-2.
What effects does the corona pandemic have on the lives of elderly people?
Older people will initially feel the same as everyone else, regardless of age. Concerned, frightened, paralyzed, depressed – but they will then try to deal with the situation again with courage and hope. Incidentally, “the elderly” do not even exist: old age is colorful, and we must be careful not to talk about the elderly in a generalized way. Just take a look at the second half of life, which we are investigating here at the German Center for Gerontology.
The second half of life, that is the phase of life in which people realize that their life is finite and that they are gradually getting older. The 40-year-olds worry about their jobs and at the same time have to educate their children. The 60-year-olds would like to support their grandchildren and volunteer, but they cannot do so at the moment. The 80-year-olds are told every day that they belong to the absolute risk group. It is possible that this is why they no longer leave the house. In addition, there are also the big differences in income and assets: if you have money, things can simply be delivered via private services – even toilet paper and even if the general delivery services are fully booked.
What does your research say about the current living situation of older people?
From the German Ageing Survey, our long-term study on the second half of life, which has been around since 1996, we know that the majority of older people are socially well embedded, that contact between the generations is good and that the state of health has improved over time, especially of people who have already retired. And another important point: older people are not so much more lonely than younger people. If you look at how loneliness changes between the ages of 40 and 90, the loneliness rate is quite stable. Only a small minority of people in the second half of life – between about 5 and 10 percent – feel very lonely. But this can of course change as a result of the Corona pandemic. We will only be able to say something more precise about this in the future.
What can we do to ensure that elderly people who are not allowed to have visitors now do not become lonely?
Every form of communication is important to avoid loneliness. Almost all older people have a telephone. That’s why: Use the telephone – grandchildren, call your grandparents; neighbors, call each other! But also very old-fashioned letters and postcards give pleasure. If you can’t meet regularly, then you should be able to hear or read from each other. Older people also need to have access to digital forms of communication: It’s great to video-conference with friends and family, not just to talk, but to see them. But not everyone has the necessary equipment, not everyone can operate such equipment if it is available in the household. It is then the task of the neighborhood to look after old and very old people and to keep in touch.
What else can be done to support older people now?
There are incredibly many creative and great ideas. The other day I saw a photo of a street scene: Children in front of their grandmother’s house drew a bouquet of flowers on the sidewalk and wrote underneath: Grandma, we love you. I found that very touching – and I am firmly convinced that the grandmother also felt the affection of her grandchildren. But of course tangible help is also important. In our house, young people have hung a note on the front door and offered to go shopping for the older people in the house. I see a great opportunity for mutual solidarity. The younger ones can go shopping, the older ones can contribute something that can also be done at home: Whoever has a sewing machine sews masks for the residents. Old people are not victims, but an important and active part of our society. There is a lot being done away with at the moment.
Could you give examples of the social commitment of older people?
It is very important to me that we do not talk about older people in a generalized way. The risk of COVID-19 is not age alone, but the state of health and previous illnesses, which naturally increase with age. There are healthy older people and there are also younger people with pre-existing conditions. Clear risk communication is important in these times, and it is important to point out the overall increased risk of COVID-19 in older and very old people. Nevertheless, a differentiated picture of age is also important here. In the current situation there are often sweeping statements about “the old”. The negative age stereotypes transported by these statements can lead to an increase in age discrimination. In the current situation, such age discrimination can be of considerable importance: If decisions on scarce resources do not consider the individual and his or her very own life situation, but only age counts, then this would be an example of considerable age discrimination.
Corona is now a pandemic, so the whole world is affected. Are there differences between Germany and other countries in the way older people are treated?
As we all know, there are large regional differences in the number of people suffering from COVID-19. However, we do not yet know whether and what differences there are with regard to the life situations of older people. In parts of Italy or Spain, however, the number of people who fell ill and died was alarmingly high. A problem has become very clear in these countries, however: What is decided when there are fewer resources than necessary, too few hospital beds, too few options for ventilation in intensive care units? What we absolutely must avoid are situations in which decisions are made solely on the basis of a person’s age and not on the basis of detailed information on their state of health. On a personal note, it is precisely in these difficult times that Europe needs to show solidarity. At last there is movement on the question of financial aid for countries that are particularly affected.
What do you think will be the long-term consequences of the Corona crisis for older people?
I do not think anyone can foresee that yet. But there will probably be far-reaching consequences for all of us, young and old. Two things are very obvious: firstly, in future we will all make even greater use of the opportunities offered by the Internet than before – for communication, to obtain information, to use services. We must therefore ensure that really everyone, regardless of age, income and education, has access to the Internet and can use the relevant devices and programmes. And secondly, there is a high probability that there will be a recession. Who will suffer the most? Unemployment will rise and many self-employed people will suffer from the recession. This will affect people of working age, but also children and young people. It will probably also be difficult for those old people who only receive small pensions. But as I said, a lot of things will happen that we are not even thinking about at the moment.
Finally, a tip: What can older people do to keep fit in Corona times?
Exercise is important for health in old age. It cannot be repeated often enough: exercise, exercise, exercise. Go outside and take a walk! Of course, only alone or in pairs – or at a great distance if you want to go for a walk with others. And then you can also do gymnastics at home. It is difficult to find the necessary discipline for this. But if we are honest: that’s always the case.