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Insights into Editorial: During pandemic, we must keep older people engaged, not isolate them

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Introduction:

The most vulnerable persons during the COVID pandemic are the elderly. If infected, their odds of survival are the lowest.

When shut away to save them from infection, they are likely to suffer from neglect from lack of care for other ailments, and loneliness. The pandemic has highlighted humanity’s dilemma of what to do with older people.

Globally, the population aged 65 and over is growing faster than other age groups. Life spans are increasing with better healthcare, nutrition and sanitation.

In 2018, for the first time in history, people aged 65 or above outnumbered children. Children are our future, no doubt.

However, the changing shape of populations threatens to bankrupt economies.

WHO delivers advice and support for older people during COVID-19:

  1. The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting the global population in drastic ways.
  2. In many countries, older people are facing the most threats and challenges at this time.
  3. Although all age groups are at risk of contracting COVID-19, older people face significant risk of developing severe illness if they contract the disease due to physiological changes that come with ageing and potential underlying health conditions.
  4. Asking the elderly to self-isolate is one of the most effective COVID-19 prevention strategies.
  5. But strong intergenerational ties and issues related to living arrangements can make physical distancing difficult for older persons.
  6. About 88 per cent of elderly people in India live with their children. So, their risk of contracting the infection from family members remains high.
  7. Living with the extended family may allow the elderly to access healthcare services, but a growing body of scholarship shows that it leaves them vulnerable to abuse and mistreatment.
  8. On the other hand, for the 17 million who don’t live with their extended family, or have made arrangements to live separately due to COVID-19, life is lonely. They have difficulty in accessing food, water and basic services.

Older people want to add more life to their years, not more years to their life:

  1. As well as exposing fragile business models, the pandemic has highlighted the tension between keeping old people safe and keeping them well.
  2. People should be the boss of their own lives. It is better to live in a house than a warehouse.
  3. All things must be considered before prescribing strong medicines. Indeed, this is why we are so careful about testing new medicines for COVID-19 before releasing them for public use.
  4. The pandemic has revealed many factors that contribute to human well-being. Lockdowns a strong medicine to prevent COVID-19 deaths have harmed human well-being in many ways, by other medical problems that could not be attended to and even by starvation in poorer countries due to disruptions of the economy.
  5. In India, as elsewhere, attention is focused every day on counting the deaths caused by COVID-19.
  6. The other tragedies, though not counted, are visible in heart-rending images of migrants struggling to find succour, and people denied healthcare for other diseases.

Healthcare schemes like the Ayushman Bharat Yojana should have special provisions for the elderly. Tele-health and mobile home-based health care check-ups should be conducted for them.

Direct subsidies to pensioners, especially in healthcare matters, can also help them tide over these difficult times. Such measures are essential to the right of a dignified life.

Strong local systems have done better:

What we have learned from the pandemic is that local systems solutions, developed and implemented by communities, are necessary to solve complex problems.

Communities understand their needs and their capabilities better than experts, who are distant from them.

Collaboration on the ground has enabled many communities to prevent the spread of the pandemic, as well as taken care of other needs of their members.

In India, Kerala, with its systems of local, collaborative action, seems to have done much better than other states. Internationally, countries with strong local systems have done better.

Case study: OPA (Older Persons’ Associations) movement:

  1. Vietnam seems to have survived the pandemic better than most countries. One reason is the strength of the OPA (Older Persons’ Associations) movement which the government has supported for many years.
  2. OPAs operate in all districts of the country. They are adding younger members and transforming themselves into Inter-Generational Self-Help Groups.
  3. They take responsibility for the most vulnerable people in their communities — most of whom are older people.
  4. They also work with local officials to improve local services and infrastructure for the benefit of the whole community.
  5. They are “nodes” in networks of actors who know what is required and who can, working together, improve services for everyone.
  6. The older members of these groups are proving to be valuable assets for the community.
  7. Moreover, because they are active and they feel valued, they add more good life to their remaining years.

Conclusion:

Older people have an invaluable role to play in our collective future. We must keep older people engaged, not shut them out to protect their bodies from the virus.

Unfortunately, the generic medicine of “physical distancing” to fight the pandemic has been branded as “social distancing”.

We need “social cohesion”, not “social distancing”, in communities, and in humanity as a whole, to fight this pandemic and also improve human well-being.