What Do the Elderly Want?


“We respect our elders. There is wisdom that comes from experience, and I am not going to stop learning from wise counsel.”

― Marcia Fudge     

One of the many collateral damages of the Covid crisis has been the profoundly negative impact of well-being and mental health on our elderly people. The elderly haven’t been asked what they want to do. Having endured almost a year of isolation, many of our elderly people are being protected from the direct ravages of Covid but are not being protected from actually being given the choice how to live their own lives. They are being cocooned away from society. 

The effort to shield elderly, frail and disabled residents from the coronavirus has created another health crisis: the isolationist policies of Covid restrictions have meant that protecting the elderly and vulnerable is also threatening their lives. The isolation is robbing them of the precious good days they have left. It is accelerating the ageing process through lack of exercise while creating mental issues.

A study by researchers at Trinity College Dublin and Mercer’s Institute for Successful Ageing at Dublin’s St James’s Hospital of older people isolated during the Covid-19 pandemic has found almost 40 per cent reported worse mental health, while more than 40 per cent said there had been a decline in their physical health. Of the 150 people surveyed, almost three out of four said they were exercising less frequently or not at all.

Confinement, social isolation, lack of access to loved ones and the lack of external stimulation are also fuelling cognitive decline and depression, which increases the risk of cancer, heart disease and stroke. 

So while Covid is having a heartbreakingly devastating effect on the health of our elderly, it’s also having a devastating effect on their mental health because of isolation and loneliness. 

This issue affects me personally. I live in Cornwall, while my old family lives 500 miles north in Scotland. I have two separated parents. They have been wonderful parents and I miss them dearly because of the geographical distance compounded by the current restrictions in travel. They live alone. They are in the high-risk category of vulnerability from a virus that has already inflicted so much on these groups.

My father is delightfully old school. He has taught me more about stoicism, fortitude, humility and kindness than anyone else and he is now teaching me lessons about how to deal with this crisis. He is incredibly self-sufficient, partially because of his life’s work as a farmer in Fife, and also because he lives by himself. Despite having crippling arthritis, he just keeps buggering on. He never makes a drama out of a crisis. He seems remarkably stoic about the pandemic, but then he remembers his early childhood of rationing and air raid shelters in World War Two. He is blessed with the fortitude of trying to turn the rottenest of grapes into the finest of wines.

My Dad is absolutely fearless. He recently said to me:

“James. If I get Covid and die, then so be it. I will die at home. I have lived a good life, but I accept that at my age, I’ve got to die of something. But I’d like to have a say in how I choose to live my final years. I would rather risk getting Covid than risk not seeing you for a year”. 

His comments were typical of the man and an example of why I adore him. But he is frustrated at not having any say on his own freedoms that he cherishes. So with this in mind, I travelled up to see him when the restrictions were lifted in the Summer of 2020. When I finally saw him and said, “hello Dad”, I looked like I had been chopping onions. His acknowledgment to me through his trademark knowing smile and twinkle in his eye brought a tear to my own eye. 

Throughout the pandemic, our physical ties that bind have been unstrung. The basic human need of tactile behaviour has been smashed to pieces. And this applies to all ages. The connection with many of our loved ones has been reduced to the basic function and form of screen or a typed word. The problem with this is that a screen doesn’t do hugs. A lot of problems can be solved with a hug, and tragically right now, a lot of problems are being created by a heart-breaking absence of hugs. 

This is particularly relevant to our kids who are living a half-life existence without the social education of physical schooling and the elderly who are being shielded away from society and not being given the choice on who they can actually see. Our elderly are in the twilight of their lives and every tactile moment with their loved ones is something to cherish. But yet, they are being infantilised by our government into forced idolisation. Perhaps, like in most things in life, they should be given the choice to shield or not to shield. Because, ultimately, living life should come with the essential freedom of choosing how to live. 

If our elderly and high-risk vulnerable groups want to shield, they should be given the ways and means both financially and in terms of supplies in food and technology to shield. But if they don’t, they should be allowed to engage with society on their terms. 

Right now – I repeat – our elderly are not being asked what they want to do.

James Melville is Managing Director of the communications consultancy, East Points West, based in Cornwall, London and Scotland. He also writes regularly for Al Jazeera.