‘I had a year’s practice at isolation’: Older people speak of distress during lockdown

Report by seven organisations finds cocooning reduced elderly’s sense of agency

Brian Rothery, from Ballybrack,  Co Dublin. He Is 78 and fully blind. Photograph: Alan Betson

Brian Rothery, from Ballybrack, Co Dublin. He Is 78 and fully blind. Photograph: Alan Betson

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Older people have spoken of how they coped with isolation, fear and what they considered institutional ageism while being asked to cocoon for their own safety during the Covid-19 lockdowns.

In a report compiled by seven organisations representing older people, interviewees speak of challenges such as being separated from family, seeing fellow residents in nursing homes die and the impact of restrictions on their physical and mental health.

The report states that many of the big decisions taken during the Covid-19 crisis affected older people inordinately. It contends that their independence and decision-making agency was reduced disproportionately by public-health restrictions requiring them to cocoon.

It says life became a series of instructions from others, with older people in nursing homes subject to what was “allowed” and “permitted”. The report also says curbs on family visits, however justified, caused enormous distress with those living independently feeling frightened into isolation.

The organisations involved in the report, known as the Alliance of Age Sector NGOs, are Active Retirement Ireland, Age and Opportunity, Alone, the Alzheimer Society of Ireland, Irish Hospice Foundation, the Irish Senior Citizens Parliament and Third Age.

In publishing the report, entitled Telling It Like It Is, the alliance called for “a post-pandemic focus on regaining older people’s positive role in society”.

It says older people were told that they were no longer able to participate in voluntary work and that the pandemic had “exposed the precarious and often inequitable nature of home care provision”.

Sue Shaw, chief executive of the Irish Senior Citizens Parliament, said the pandemic “affected everybody in different ways, and of course public-health actions needed to be taken to protect health and lives were saved.

“However, this account shows that for most older people the negative effects of the pandemic restrictions were very significant, wide-reaching and diminished their role in society. It took away older people’s right to make their own decisions.”

Pat McLoughlin, chief executive of the Alzheimer Society of Ireland, said older people’s experience of the crisis “could have been less extreme if there had been more consideration of how pandemic measures would impact them – and more meaningful consultation”.

“It shows that ageism was lurking behind many of the decisions that were made. Older people loathed the word ‘cocooning’ as fundamentally ageist,” he said.

“People’s health deteriorated as non-Covid health services were cut back and there were fewer opportunities for exercise. Not surprisingly, the incidence of depression rose.”

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The alliance is calling on Government to “ take ageism seriously” and “institute a coherent system of supports so that older people can stay in their own homes to the end of life, as that is what most want to do”.

Case Studies

Losing sight meant ‘I had a year’s practice at isolation’

Brian Rothery, aged 78, is blind and a widower and lives alongside family in a “granny flat” in south county Dublin. He says his experience during the lockdown was “good” and shows “how things could work”.

Mr Rothery suffered from a degenerative eye condition for 10 years before suddenly losing his sight “over two days” about a year before the pandemic.

“It meant I had a year’s practice at isolation,” he says.

He lived “in the country” before he lost his eyesight, and his daughter then brought him to live in a flat attached to her home.

With no real experience of dependency, and no medical card because of “a very good pension”, he contacted his district nurse for advice. She organised a care package which involves visits from a care worker six days a week (twice on Wednesdays).

A former author, journalist and press officer for Enterprise Ireland, Mr Rothery was used to writing and being mentally active, so the nurse organised a volunteer from Alone to come and help him stay in touch – assisting him in sending emails and maintaining contacts so he could “stay intellectually connected”.

“When Covid hit I wouldn’t say I was struggling; in fact, if anything I was a bit cocky about it,” he says.

The main development was that he had to reduce his contacts from three to two, which meant the visits from the Alone volunteer were moved online. He still had the care worker and his daughter looking after his needs.

Among his many projects is a podcast – the Rare Old Times – in which he talks “about older Dublin for younger people”. He and another pensioner are also collaborating on a programme about the pitiful sex education they received in religious schools.

“I don’t think I’m a good example of the difficulties older people suffered during Covid, but I may be a good case study for how things could work.”

Angela Edghill: “Many older people were simply terrified and remain paranoid.” Photograph: Alan Betson
Angela Edghill: “Many older people were simply terrified and remain paranoid.” Photograph: Alan Betson

‘Many older people were simply terrified and remain paranoid’

“I was involved in advocacy for the Irish Hospice Foundation before I retired. I was the one who was introduced as – ‘This is Angela, she stands on street corners and shouts at politicians that they are all going to die.’’’

So says Angela Edghill (68) of the difficulties, even pre-pandemic, of getting policymakers to see older people other than as “people who need care”.

Not that care is unimportant, she stresses,but older people are individuals too.

She speaks of a hospital consultant, a busy dynamic person with lots of “agency”, until they turn 70.

“Then they can’t even volunteer to give an injection,” she says. Ms Edghill, who is based in Ballinteer in Dublin, accepts that such issues existed long before Covid-19. But she argues that the pandemic brought them into plain sight as cocooning became the order of the day for older people.

She speaks of an older friend who was taken into a nursing home and spent the time “between two walls”.

“She was a single person basically locked in a room for nearly two years,” she said.

Ms Edghill does not blame the Government for making bad decisions, as “there was a swift response”, but she feels ageism underlines the whole approach to the care of the elderly and people were told what to do with very little consultation on any of the arrangements.

“Many older people were simply terrified,” she says “and remain paranoid”.

She cites words attributed the American writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”