Research shows how badly the pandemic impacted older people

Research showing just how badly the pandemic was impacting older people in early 2021 raises questions over how well they can ‘bounce back’.

Age UK has published a report highlighting the impact the pandemic has had on millions of people aged 60 plus in the UK in the early part of this year.

This is the second wave of research Age UK had carried out into the health and wellbeing of older people during the health emergency, with the findings this time gathered in January and February 2021. A third and hopefully final wave of this research goes into the field in August.

The charity said that the impact of the pandemic on the health and wellbeing of some older people in early 2021 is so demonstrably severe that it raises big questions over whether they will be able to ‘bounce back’.

The adverse effect may prove long lasting in many cases, or even irreversible, with big implications for the NHS and social care in the months and years to come. 

Lockdowns, social distancing measures and loss of routines and support, as well as limited access to services to manage pre-existing or newly emerged health conditions, mean millions of older people had seen their physical health and function decline.

For some, catching Covid-19 had made things even worse.  

In February 2021:  

  • 27% (around 4.3 million) said they couldn’t walk as far. 
  • 25% (around 4 million) reported they were living in more physical pain.  
  • 17% (around 2.7 million) said they were less steady on their feet. 

For a minority, but still appreciable numbers overall, the deterioration in their health and wellbeing had been severe and was affecting their independence.  

In February 2021:  

  • 12% (around 1.9 million) felt they were less independent since the start of the pandemic. 
  • 10% (around 1.6 million) of older people who had previously been able to get up and down the stairs were now finding it difficult. 
  • 9% (around 1.4 million) of older people who had previously been able to walk short distances were now finding it difficult. 

Worryingly, the research also found evidence of accelerated cognitive decline. Alongside prolonged periods of isolation, reduced social contact, and limited mental stimulation, by February 2021 some older people had been left feeling forgetful and confused.  

  • 22% (around 3.2 million) of older people were finding it harder to remember things since the start of the pandemic. 

The pandemic was seen to have had a deeply distressing impact on many older people’s mental health. Some who were already living with a mental health condition had seen their symptoms exacerbated (in some cases a relapse had been triggered after many years). Many other over 65s were experiencing anxiety, low mood and depression for the first time.   

  • 36% (around 5.8 million) said they feel more anxious since the start of the pandemic.  
  • 43% of older people (around 6.9 million) said they were feeling less motivated do the things they enjoy since the start of the pandemic. 

man and woman sitting on bench facing sea

Back in February 2021 the pandemic itself continued to be a source of great anxiety and, combined with prolonged periods isolated at home, many older people said they had lost confidence in doing everyday activities outside of the house.  

  • 54% of older people (around 8.7 million) felt less confident attending a hospital appointment. 
  • 37% of older people (almost 6 million) felt less confident going to a GP surgery. 
  • 18% (around 2.9 million) felt less confident leaving the house by themselves.  

However, the impact was not evenly spread. Older people with pre-existing health or care needs, carers and older people on low incomes were among the most likely to report a significant adverse impact on their health and wellbeing. For example, in February 2021:  

  • 45% of older people living with a long-term health condition (around 2.9 million) were living with more physical pain since the start of the pandemic compared to11% (around 1 million) of older people living without a long-term health condition.   
  • 38% of older carers (nearly 860,000) were in more physical pain since the start of the pandemic – not surprising since many have had, literally, to shoulder more responsibility for the person they care for, without the back up of formal services. 
  • 29% of older people in lower social grades (around 2.6 million) were living in more physical pain since the start of the pandemic compared to 20% (around 1.4 million) of those in higher social grades. 

The research indicated that back in February older people from ethnic minorities were also feeling less confident about getting out and about, accessing health services or receiving support at home, when compared to their white counterparts.  

  • 27% of older people from ethnic minorities felt less confident going for short walks outside since the start of the pandemic, compared to 19% of white older people. 
  • 26% of older ethnic minority people felt less confident leaving the house by themselves since the start of the pandemic, compared to 17% of white older people. 

Caroline Abrahams, Age UK’s Charity Director, said: ‘We’re all hoping that this nightmare pandemic is finally in retreat, but even if it is millions of older people will still be left coping with the difficult physical and mental after-effects of all they have endured.” 

‘Our research found that earlier this year, immobility, deconditioning, loneliness, and an inability to grieve as normal, were leaving deep physical and emotional scars on a significant proportion of our older population.

‘It’s too soon to know for certain how many older people can ‘bounce back’ from the pandemic but at the very least it will be tough, and they are going to need all the help they can get.

‘The implications are clear: Government must give our physical and mental health and social care services enough additional resources to meet older people’s increased, pandemic-related needs.  

‘Sadly, millions of older people face long periods on hospital waiting lists, often in considerable pain. So as well as giving hospitals the extra funding they are asking for in order to reduce these lists as fast as possible, the government must also look at what more can be done by GPs and community health services to support older people while they wait for their surgery, and increase their funding accordingly.

‘Making sure these older people can access effective pain relief, for example, is a moral and medical imperative.

‘Meanwhile, the rest of us should bear in mind that it may take many older people quite some time to rebuild their confidence and capacity, and we all have a part to play in helping them with this. Our message to the public this summer is ‘please do keep supporting the older people in your lives’.’  

If you are worried about the effect the pandemic has had on an older family member or for more information and advice, call Age UK’s free, confidential Advice Line. Open 365 days a year from 8am-7pm, the Advice Line is available by calling 0800 169 6565.  

Photo Credit – Matthew Bennett


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