The following is a feature from the Ministry of People Empowerment & Elder Affairs in observance of International Day of the Elderly, on October 1, 2020. The day will be held under the theme: “Pandemics: Do they change how we address age and ageing?”
Older persons are a varied group with diverse needs, capacities and resources. For those with strong support systems and access to resources and services, their ability to cope with and navigate the uncertain times, may be less problematic. For others with minimal social support, the pandemic has served to further place them at risk. These persons will require more interventions and assistance, whether it is from the community or through state provide social services. In a very short time, the pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other.
Previously, as the frontline ministry responsible for the elderly, the Ministry of People Empowerment & Elder Affairs has been promoting active ageing and encouraging our seniors to engage in stimulating social activities, with their peers, as a means of mitigating and avoiding social isolation and exclusion.
In the new normal, older persons are now being challenged by protocol requirements to spend more time at home, to avoid physical contact and socializing with friends and the temporary cessation of some social activities. While the safety and protection of our seniors must be paramount, we also recognize that social isolation can have an impact on their mental health.
Moreover, those who live alone with minimal social support are more susceptible to elder abuse. There is, therefore, need for creative and innovative opportunities to foster healthy ageing during the pandemic.
Churches and the faith-based community tend to be a significant part of older persons’ lives and even though places of worship have reopened following lockdown measures, many older persons, especially those with chronic illnesses, have opted not to return in the interest of self-protection and self -preservation.
While the use of technology is useful for live streaming of services to help older persons feel more involved, admittedly, this is no substitute for human interaction even if limited to telephone conversations or planned protocol compliant home visits.
To date, the Jorris Dunner Elderly Day Care Centre for the Elderly remains closed and only partial reopening of the Seniors Recreational Activities Centres (programmes operated by the National Assistance Board).
We are aware that the delayed reopening of these programs has created a void in the lives of some older persons and their families, especially where caregivers are returning to work or need some respite from the burdens of caregiving.
I assure you that the safety of older persons is our overriding consideration. The persons responsible for the various entities are working assiduously to ensure that protocols and requirements are met so that when the facilities recommence it will be in a safe and secure environment for clients and staff.
In this current climate, special attention must also be paid to the care and treatment of persons with dementia and Alzheimer’s’ Disease. The requirements and changes that have resulted from the response to COVID -19 can add additional stress and pressures for caregivers and older persons.
For people with dementia, changes to routines and activities can lead to further decline in memory, understanding and cognition. This deterioration can result in a lack of cooperation and conflict with caregivers causing the latter to unintentionally engage in elder abuse.
Very often elderly persons themselves are the ones giving care and they too may have underlying health conditions. The demands and burdens of caregiving may result in self-neglect and this has dire consequences for their physical and mental health.
Support for caregivers in the formal and informal care sector must therefore be part of care strategies and responses not only to COVID-19 but to the care of older persons in general.
The Ministry of People Empowerment and Elder Affairs has also recognised its responsibility to workers who provide care in the community through the National Assistance Board’s Home Care Programme.
Proactive measures were therefore taken to ensure the safety of caregivers and the elderly recipients of the service, including extensive training, provision of adequate personal protective equipment, location mapping of the most vulnerable elderly persons requiring care during national shutdown, counselling to help staff to cope and contingency planning to ensure the care of recipients’ if the delivery of care was impacted
There were also interventions by the Ministry to assist older persons in the community with their response to the pandemic.
These included establishment of an Emergency Operating Centre (EOC) within the Ministry to manage the social care aspects of the pandemic; funding and distribution of care packets to over 2000 vulnerable elderly persons; and establishment of a 24-hour hotline for older persons to ensure that, even with lockdown measures, elderly persons were still able to voice their needs and concerns and have some means of human interaction.
The COVID-19 pandemic has provided us with a very valuable opportunity to review our programs and service delivery. Given our responses, there have been successes as we have been able to contain the virus and there were no cases of older persons who are beneficiaries of our services contracting the disease. These successes were the result of proactive planning and will be also applied to the strategies for disaster social relief.
While there have been successes which are commendable, there were also lessons to be learnt from the pandemic experience, such as establishing clear distinct criteria for defining vulnerability, contingency planning to ensure minimum disruption in the event that plans and resources are impacted; and embracing the community as an essential stakeholder and part of the collective response to the care for older persons.
The coming “National Conversation on Ageing and Elder Affairs: Forming the Narrative” hosted by the Ministry of People Empowerment & Elder Affairs on Friday, October 9, 2020 will further address these challenges.