Research has likened experiencing loneliness and social isolation to the effects of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Using this analogy, in the past two years, the population as a whole have had a significant deterioration in their long-term health!
Of course for many older people the health implications of feeling lonely and disconnected was a way of life long before the pandemic and ironically the community spirit the pandemic inspired saw some older residents feeling more connected than ever before. But for too many older people not doing their previous activities became a habit and they have not reappeared in their local shops, lunch clubs, buses and health services.
Their absence is a massive loss to their communities. Many community groups and charities are lacking members and volunteers. They are also missed in their local shops, post offices and public transport as online shopping deliveries set up by kindly family in lockdown have replaced the regular physical activity and social contact of former shopping trips. The shortfall of these grey pounds will result in the loss of vital community services and further isolate other older people.
Older people are ‘missing in action’ from volunteer roles: charity shops, luncheon clubs, village halls and faith settings are all missing volunteers and their loss impacts on capacity across the board but also on the individual who has lost an identity and those feelings of being valued.
In health-speak many older people have ‘deconditioned’ a word which simply doesn’t do justice to the debilitating effects on the body and mind of sitting in a chair all day every day with no stimulation, motivation or sense of achievement. The impact is borne out by the frightening rise in dementia and low-cognitive function, depression and even suicide.
Whilst the pandemic has undoubtedly negatively impacted on many older people and their carers it has also demonstrated the impact of intervention. Our Strictly No Falling falls prevention classes continued throughout the pandemic. Participants previously digitally excluded got online at record speed supported by class instructors and some creative solutions so they could join in online classes, or they joined in with us on Radio Derby, or with their instructor from their garden gate! The motivation of peer support and their awareness of the value of the exercises kept them going and they were some of the first activities to resume face to face, classes are thriving, and participants have regained their pre-pandemic activity levels. And of course, falls prevention exercise prevents falls – a crisis averted, life added to years and a Carer with fewer responsibilities.
Many community groups have re-started and recognising the challenge for members offered buddies to help people join in. New groups and activities are emerging and being grown in response to a raft of different roles within health, Place and public health to address social connectedness. As ever the voluntary and community sector is leading the way working with all the pieces of jigsaw to create more community activities to lure people out of their self-maintained lockdown.
Easy access to small grants and an understanding funding route like Foundation Derbyshire can be life or death to a small group of volunteers with an ambition to “get something going locally” or to rescue a withered activity
Funding this emerging capacity is vital. The full effect of the pandemic won’t be fully understood for many years, but I hope that alongside the deconditioning of individuals we will also recognise the key role of the voluntary and community sector in prevention and addressing the impact of Covid on older people.
Katy Pugh – CEO Age UK Derby and Derbyshire