Pandemic highlights importance of mobile phone contact for elderly

Missing contact details pose challenge for Covid-19 testing and contact-tracing systems

When my 88-year-old mother’s landline went dead a few weeks ago, we quickly realised what a lifeline it had been during the Covid-19 pandemic. As an older person living alone who refused to have a mobile phone, suddenly we had no direct daily contact with her and her personal alarm – which was linked to her landline number – didn’t work for the few days it took to get her landline working again.

Our reliance on mobile phones has come into sharp focus during the Covid-19 pandemic, not least because if you go for a Covid test you get the results sent directly to your mobile phone number (they also go to your GP and can be received by post). And if you are a close contact of someone who tests positive for Covid-19, mobile phone numbers are the most useful way for contact tracers to reach you.

The Health Service Executive's new booklet Keeping Well this Winter – delivered free to all households this month – stresses the importance of older people using contact numbers of a family member or close friend for emergencies if they don't have a mobile phone themselves. Only 30 per cent of people aged 80 and over had a smartphone or tablet, according to a study by Trinity College Dublin researchers in May.

"If you are an older person without a mobile phone, you need to ask a friend or relative if you can use their mobile number as a contact," says Dr Greg Martin, a public-health doctor who helped set up the contact-tracing system in Ireland.

Dr Martin says that equally people should offer their mobile phone number as a contact number if they have a friend or relative without a mobile phone. “We would encourage people to have conversations with friends, neighbours or relatives who may need support to ensure they have a contact mobile number in case it’s needed,” he says.

Challenge

Missing or wrong contact details pose a challenge for the testing and contact-tracing system, so having this conversation will be quite important if someone needs a test. “There are other groups of vulnerable people such as homeless people, people in direct-provision centres, those who have recently arrived in Ireland and people who don’t speak English who also need to ask someone can they use their mobile number as a contact,” Dr Martin says.

The Keeping Well this Winter booklet contains plenty of advice, particularly for older people living alone during the pandemic. It encourages older people to keep a written record of contact numbers for family, friends, their GP and pharmacy, and details about their medicines. It also includes the national number for community call – 0818-222024 – should help be needed for delivery of food, medication, fuel or other medical or healthcare needs. Each local authority continues to avail of volunteers who will call to people’s homes if they need support in any way.

The booklet also contains useful reminders on the importance of eating and sleeping well, daily exercise, general health checks and minding your mental health. There are contact numbers for organisations such as the Samaritans (116-123 free call from landline or mobile numbers).

And as if we need it, it also reminds us how to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and what to do if you experience any of the symptoms of Covid-19. There is a useful chart comparing flu, cold and Covid-19 symptoms to help you distinguish between them.

And yes, my mother has since agreed to carry – and use – a mobile phone anytime she is away from her home – or in the unlikely event her landline malfunctions again soon.

Alone operates a national helpline – 0818 222 024 – for older people daily from 8am-8pm.

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