‘When is this ever going to end?’: Older people struggling with anxiety and isolation

Some putting off medical treatment while others ‘becoming deliberate hermits’ due to Covid-19

As the second Christmas of the Covid-19 pandemic looms, people’s fears about not being able to spend time with wider family grows again. And older people – especially those living alone – are particularly worried about the impact of the pandemic on their mental and physical health needs.

"Many of us are losing the will to live as we move into the dark winter days and the long gloomy nights," says Alice Hughes.

In reasonably good health herself – although she can’t walk far due to bad arthritis and she has artificial hips and knees – the 77-year-old says that she is concerned for older people with serious illnesses whose treatment is now being delayed due to the fourth wave of Covid-19.

“A lot of people have had their treatment delayed and many older people are afraid to go to hospital to get routine treatments,” she says.Hughes also feels that some GPs can be dismissive of the concerns of older people. “GPs are very busy because of Covid. It used to be easy to make an appointment but now you often have to wait a week or so. Several of my friends have mentioned how they feel like they are in the way and taking up valuable time that could be used for someone else.”


On a broader level, Hughes says that many older people feel that they have already lost a year of their lives because of Covid-19 but it’s not over yet. “Older people are losing their sense of togetherness and becoming deliberate hermits. I have grandchildren and great-grandchildren that I rarely see any more even though many of them live in the same town as me.”

Formerly very active in her local drama and musical society in Co Meath, Hughes misses the opportunities to go out and have fun. “I do very hard crosswords and I read a lot as the library delivers books to my house but there is a feeling of ‘when is this ever going to end?’.”

MJ O’Brien, another retired person in her 70s, is also very worried about the provision of healthcare for older people during the fourth wave of Covid. “I developed an issue with my heart in the summer and although I’ve since seen a cardiologist and am on beta blockers, I won’t see the consultant again until February,” she explains.

Quickly adding that there are many older people worse than her, O’Brien says that they are who she is more worried about. “There is a huge cohort of older people who haven’t got the care they need and they won’t get it now. What about the older people who have had cancelled outpatients appointments, cancelled elective surgery for things that are medically needed and then others with reduced homecare packages?” she asks.

Like Hughes, O'Brien says that when she has received healthcare in Ireland, it has been excellent but she believes that healthcare professionals will soon be put in the invidious position of making decisions around who is the fittest and who'll benefit most from surgery. "If this happens, I don't think the elderly will be a priority. I'm very worried about all the older people who can't get an appointment to see a specialist in the public system and what that does to their mental health – especially if you live alone."

O’Brien also suggests that many older people are neglecting health issues for fear of going to their GPs. “Living alone compounds whatever ails you have and adds a huge amount of fear. My life hasn’t been a piece of cake but I’ve never been afraid of anything until now.”

Speaking about the pressures on GPs during this fourth wave of Covid-19, Cork-based GP Dr Mary Favier said recently that patients attending GP surgeries are divided into two groups – those who are young and feel impervious to the virus and those who are older, more vulnerable and anxious.

“We spend half our time encouraging one lot to take care and the other lot not to be overwhelmed by anxiety,” she said.

Dr Keith Gaynor, clinical psychologist with the St John of God Community Services and assistant professor at the School of Psychology at University College Dublin says that research has shown that people don't need to be in direct contact with the virus or to be a close contact of an infected person to experience Covid-19 related distress.

To help those distressed by the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr Gaynor suggests people need to find ways to reassure themselves. “It’s normal to be anxious or depressed during a pandemic but you don’t want to be overwhelmed with anxiety or slip into clinical depression,” he says. Researchers have found that people who manage their moods better have negative thoughts too but that they are better able to balance these negative thoughts with positive thoughts such as “we’ll get through this”.

Dr Gaynor says that we need to develop empathy and compassion for ourselves. “We are often very hard on ourselves but if you start to notice the things that are still good and seek out those good things – like being in nature, meeting a friend for a chat or speaking on the phone, on Zoom or texting if you can’t meet them even if that means pushing yourself out of your comfort zone,” he says.

In earlier Covid waves, mental health professionals advised people not to listen constantly to news updates about the virus but instead to choose one time in the day to tune into the news.

“Yes, it’s a good idea to pull back from the news and recognise what you need to know. Do you really need to know the number of new cases of Covid-19 every day? For most of us, this doesn’t make a difference to our lives. And unless you need a hospital appointment, you don’t need to be frightened that they don’t exist. You don’t need to take on the global fears if it’s not related to your direct experience,” he advises.

According to Dr Gaynor, it’s about “holding on to what you need on an emotional level”. It’s about coming back into the moment and back to what’s happening today. So go out and meet your friend with safety precautions. He adds, “There are issues around the weather and how it gets dark at 4.30pm at this time of the year but if it’s a beautiful sunny winter’s day, wrap up and go out for a walk if you can or give a friend a call if you can’t.”