Alone helpline received ‘up to 1,100 calls a day’ at height of pandemic

Older people’s mental health severely impacted by cocooning, committee hears

Older people's mental health was severely impacted by cocooning measures during the Covid-19 pandemic, an Oireachtas committee has heard.

Speaking at the sub-committee on mental health, Seán Moynihan, chief executive of Alone, said that up to 1,100 calls per day were made to Alone’s National Support Line during the height of the pandemic. Three quarters of callers lived alone.

Sinn Féin TD for East Cork, Pat Buckley, said that he knew of cases where people were so lonely, they wrote letters to themselves, just so they could have a conversation with the postman.

Mr Moynihan said that research conducted by QJM in the International Journal of Medicine indicated that cocooning measures had a significant impact on older people.

“Nearly 40 per cent of older people reported that their mental health was ‘worse’ or ‘much worse’ while cocooning,” he said.

“Nearly 60 per cent of older people in the study reported loneliness . . . 50 per cent also reported a decline in their quality of life.”

Mr Moynihan said that while cocooning measures may have been necessary at the time, there is “no denying” they had a negative impact on older people. “We noticed that older people using the support line were becoming increasingly distressed by these measures.”

Alone is also calling for a plan to help older people rebuild their confidence and reintegrate into society, said Mr Moynihan.

He added that a strategy to deal with loneliness, the right to homecare, digital training, and more community supports were needed. “People want to age at home, we need to create choices [to achieve this].”

Poverty was another major issue facing older people. My Moynihan said home repairs or appliance replacements were the third most common issue people ring Alone about.

“If anything happens, like Covid, increases in energy prices, increases in transport prices, something in their house breaks down . . . after people retire and they are on the basic pension, or they are bereaved, they have one income of €240, if they have 40 years of stamps. Ultimately if the fridge breaks down or the cooker goes . . . over years, people use up their [monetary] resources... and they need support.”

Age Action representatives also spoke at the committee, and they spoke about their Hardship Fund, which aimed to address small, Covid-19 related financial hardships experienced by older people.

Age Action raised a total of €110,000, but 28,000 eligible people applied for the fund, so it was massively oversubscribed.

A total of 453 applicants were supported with small grants of up to €500 each.

People used the fund to cover increased heating and fuel costs, increased costs relating to digital devices, and to replace small appliances.

The impact on traditional bereavement and grieving practices was also discussed.

Celine Clarke, Head of Advocacy and Communications at Age Action, said that many older people experienced bereavement during the pandemic, but couldn’t have a traditional wake or funeral.

"This will affect some people's mental health and will take time to heal . . .The Department of Social Protection could be asked to be flexible around the means-testing of Exceptional Needs Payments to cover the cost of memorial services where funeral costs were not sought by a person."

She also said the language used in public health guidance, such as “vulnerable”, led to the stigmatisation of older people.

“As noted by the UN Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons, while older people have become highly visible in the Covid-19 outbreak, their voices, opinions and concerns have not been heard.”