How Covid-19 condemned the elderly to loneliness
Milliam Murigi @millymur1
Since Covid-19 was declared a pandemic in mid-March this year, governments and international organisations have been unequivocal in their warnings that older persons face a significant risk of developing severe illness if they contract the disease.
As a result, young people were advised to limit visits to their ageing parents and grandparents to reduce the risk of infections.
Dr Moka Lantum, managing director CheckUps Medical Centre, Nairobi, says old people are vulnerable for a variety of reasons: They have low immunity.
Some have pre-existing chronic conditions such as heart disease, hypertension and diabetes.
These either expose them to a high viral load or weaken their ability to resist the torrential immune response that weakens vital organs.
“Protecting the elderly is an essential public health measure to curb the mortality associated with the virus,” said Dr Moka.
But this growing isolation of the elderly has spawned its own crisis. Most senior citizens are now battling with loneliness and others have been forced to look for activities to beat boredom brought by the pandemic.
“Though we have not witnessed a surge in deaths in the elderly, Covid-19 has taken a toll on elderly because of loneliness.
Imagine going for all those months without going to church, attending any social gathering, not seeing their grandchildren, and some even afraid to go to hospital for follow up of pre-existing conditions.
All these while they have been confined indoors. We have little measure of the inherent shift in mental health.
Only time will tell. We must watch closely for early signs of depression among the elderly like never before,” adds Moka.
Experts say loneliness triggers a stress response that there is an imbalance in our social homeostasis.
This biological phenomena has been associated with increased inflammation and a hyper activation of the immune system, which, according to experts, contributes to some of the chronic diseases that older adults are already more vulnerable to developing.
Although loneliness and social isolation can affect anyone regardless of age, the elderly are particularly vulnerable, especially under the current conditions.
“Loneliness is the sense of suffering from being disconnected from other people.
Loneliness is different from social isolation, which is simply not being around other people or not having close connections,” says Joseph Wanyeki Gatimu, founder Prolong Life Kenya, a non-governmental organisation that restores hope and dignity for the elderly.
Julia Gachambi, aged 81 years, from Rurii, Githurai 44, Kiambu county battled loneliness for a while, before she decided to venture into poultry farming.
It is now five months and she hasn’t set her eyes on any of her children.
Some lost jobs due to the pandemic, others live far away from her and others are willing to come and visit, but they are fearing for her safety.
“I have nine children, but all of them fear that if they come home they will be exposing me to the disease.
I have been suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, thus a compromised immune system.
All this time we have been communicating via mobile phone and I miss seeing them though I put my safety first,” she says.
Though she remains positive, she admits that the last six months have not been easy.
She reveals that because of the social isolation, old memories have been haunting her to an extent of affecting her mental health.
According to her, many are the times she would lock herself in the house to cry without knowing the reason.
Other times she would embark on a journey without knowing the destination and it used to take her neighbours effort to bring her back.
And after realising that all is not well, she decided to explore ways to keep her busy.
This is how she started poultry farming, something she says has helped her beat the boredom and loneliness.
With the help from her children, she bought about 20, one-month old chicks and that is how she started her farming venture.
“With this project, I am always busy doing something. You will find me feeding the chicken most of the times.
When not feeding them I collect leftover food from restaurant for them.
With all these activities, I don’t have time to stay idle. This has really improved my mental health,” she says.
Another woman, Monica Wangeci, who is in her mid-90s and takes care of her grandchildren says that though her children haven’t abandoned her, she has been abandoned by the church and neighbours who she used to rely on.
Wangeci who lives in Kiangiciri slums, Githurai 44 used to receive gifts and donations from church and neighbours before Covid-19 struck, but now the amount of help she is getting has reduced.
Apart from that she has not been receiving visitors as she used to.
“The worst part is that the church has not been creating unique home service opportunity for me as they used to do before.
Once in a while they used to conduct the mass here, but this hasn’t happened since coronavirus started.
I hope now that the government has announced that people can attend church, things will go back to normal,” she says.
And to ensure that her grandchildren don’t go hungry, she has started a vegetable farming project. Her grandchildren have been taking care of the farm.
“I receive money from my children and they come to see me often. I also have some rental houses something, which has helped me financially.
With my grandchildren around me, I cannot complain about loneliness,” she adds.
Covid-19 has not only forced many family members to end visits to parents and grandparents at their homes; also even those living at home for the aged (care centres) have been affected.
Such centres have closed doors to visitors and for those who visit, they are not allowed to interact with their loved ones.
Administrators of the centres have enforced stringent rules to control the spread of the virus.
At Little Sisters of the Poor (Nyumba ya wazee) Kasarani, care givers are being accommodated at the centre to avoid daily commute that would put the elderly at risk of contracting the virus.
And since the centre relies on donations, all donations are left at the reception to ensure minimal interaction.
“It has been hard for us to enforce some of the rules by the government. But we thank God we have managed and we hope all is going to be well,” says Sister Agnes Wachieni.
Apart from loneliness, Covid-19 has amplified violence, abuse, and neglect of older people around the world, which was already on the rise, according to HelpAge International.
Wanyeki says the elderly are facing abuse not only by strangers, but also from family members who are entrusted in caring for them.
There have been media reports from across the country in which older and vulnerable women and men have had their Sh2,000 monthly stipend from the government’s cash transfer programme stolen from them by family members including children, grandchildren and other relatives.
Some of the perpetrators are reported to accompany these old people to the bank and take away the money on withdrawal
“The elderly, as a vulnerable group, cannot get to where young people are scrambling for the little relief food available from the government or other organisations, especially in urban slums.
It is shocking to note that those entrusted with the provisions for these poor elderly are actually stealing from them,” he says.