Impact of COVID-19 on the Elderly Population

The progression of the COVID-19 pandemic has adversely impacted the Indian population causing widespread disruption to the daily lives of individuals across all age groups. However, older people are facing the most significant challenges during this time, primarily because old age is associated with a cornucopia of psychological and social risk factors.

The weakened physical state of older people leads to a lowered immune response and increased susceptibility to various infections. The heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 among the elderly is also a result of the prevalence of underlying health conditions in this age group. During the current scenario, accessing healthcare facilities, especially for illnesses other than COVID-19 has been a hurdle. Reduced mobility due to home isolation compounded by limited access to healthcare due to the lockdown can cause worsening of preexisting mental health problems among the elderly, further leading to cognitive impairment such as delirium. Elderly people with cognitive deficits might have difficulty understanding the pandemic and following precautions for the same. Paradoxically, getting hospitalized in the currently inundated healthcare system would further expose older people to overcrowding and potentially minimal supervision, thereby again making them vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.

The pervasiveness of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) among the elderly has been prominent throughout the course of the pandemic. This can be attributed to ubiquitous healthcare advisory highlighting the elderly age group as the one with the highest mortality rate from COVID-19. In addition, for senior citizens living away from their children and grandchildren, feelings of apprehension might be exacerbated due to fear of loved ones getting infected by the virus.

Moreover, social distancing whilst essential to curtail the spread of the virus, can inadvertently lead to social isolation among the elderly, serving as another risk factor for mental health disorders. Social isolation, concomitant with loneliness, has received considerable attention due to being directly related to negative health outcomes for people of all age-groups. Specifically, the risk of depression due to loneliness is heightened among the elderly. Therefore, technology serves as a primary tool to stay connected with friends and family in order to overcome the distressing consequences of social isolation. Even the healthcare industry has taken to telemedicine in the form of online consultations for physical and mental illnesses. Online deliveries of groceries, medicines and virtual social communities have also become standard during the pandemic. However, while the use of digital services can reduce the adverse effects of the pandemic, touting technology as the cure-all for challenges faced by all age-groups is problematic. This is because the elderly population is much less adept at using technology as compared to the younger generation. Consequently, this creates a contradictory situation wherein senior citizens receive less benefits from digital solutions in spite of them being the most affected by the pandemic and lockdown. Accordingly, it is essential to develop initiatives that would increase technological access to elderly people while also providing training for skill development in order to encourage and motivate older people to use technology.

Danishta Kaul
Psychology postgraduate with a specialisation in cognitive neuroscience

/ Navaratan Blog