The COVID-19 pandemic took us all unawares. No one knew what to expect, and with it came a lot of anxiety through fear of the unknown.
Protecting people physically from the pandemic and containing the virus became, of course, a top priority. Strict measures were imposed on everyone, but vulnerable people like the elderly had to endure lengthier and more rigid measures.
We are now realising the effects of these measures. Even if, thankfully, numbers are now negligible, we still are facing the consequences of the virus. Just like a tsunami leaves a trail of destruction and debris along its path, we are left now to pick up the pieces of this pandemic. Working with the elderly has made us more sensitive to these effects.
Some subtle – and not easily recognisable − consequences emerged when relatives started visiting their loved ones once again.
The most heartbreaking of all was seeing elderly suffering from dementia not recognising their loved ones after three months of lockdown. They had forgotten the familiar faces they once knew. Relatives were distressed and cried because they had lost their loved ones indirectly due to the virus.
We also realised that some elderly had become depressed by the isolation brought on by the measures; the separation from their family was too much to bear for some. No social media, phone calls or video calls can ever replace touch or physical proximity.
Although these channels do provide some solace through a form of communication, they are a far cry from what human beings need, especially when one is elderly and frail. All human beings crave the sense of touch, and such devices cannot provide it.
So these past weeks we often found ourselves asking whether it was all worth it. There is no doubt that keeping the elderly safe from COVID was a big relief, but on an individual level, one feels this was sometimes done at a cruel cost, as certain collateral damage, like forgetting loved ones, can never be recovered.
No social media, phone calls or video calls can ever replace touch or physical proximity... they are a far cry from what human beings need
Although the isolation was not physically demanding on the body like COVID, it led to a psychological toll on relatives and affected the quality of life of some elderly, which in turn can also affect their physical health.
Public health officials around the world commented on how isolation during COVID-19 led to a rise in mental illness, especially depression. People who already suffered from mental health issues before the pandemic fared worse since their isolation grew during lockdown.
But this is not unique to the elderly sector.
Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also known as ‘Broken heart syndrome’, occurs when the heart muscle becomes suddenly weakened or stunned, which mostly happens after severe physical or emotional stress. Luckily, this can be temporary.
Research at two Ohio hospitals during the pandemic revealed a significant increase in this syndrome. Doctors believe that the stressors caused by the pandemic, whether social, physical or economic, took a toll on people (Kalra, 2020). In fact, they concluded that current patients were two times likelier to suffer from broken heart syndrome than before the pandemic.
“The pandemic has created a parallel environment which is not healthy. Emotional distancing is not healthy. The economic impact is not healthy. We’ve seen that as an increase in non-coronavirus deaths, and our study says that stress cardiomyopathy has gone up because of the stress that the pandemic has created.” (Kalra, 2020)
So although COVID-19 cases seem to be decreasing, let us keep our eyes open and not forget there is an aftermath.
Let us be more sensitive and aware of those vulnerable adults who may still be suffering the consequences. Let us be more empathetic with those who need to speak about it and listen to their concerns and fears.
COVID-19 may strike again and if it does, we need to repeat what we did well and improve on what we did not do well. We must not overlook the possible effects and take into consideration not only an individual’s physical well-being but also their psychological welfare.
What was ‘unknown’ until a few months ago is now known; people know what to expect.
If COVID-19 strikes again, some may not be so compliant to any imposed measures and would want to decide what is good for them as individuals. Public health officials must reflect well on any measures to be taken and on their extent and imposition.
But even if there is no surge in cases, we will still have to deal with the effects of this pandemic, effects that we will be facing for years to come.
At no point should we undermine what people are expressing or feeling. If we do, we would be doing them an injustice.
Charmaine Attard is general manager at AX Care.
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