“The COVID-19 pandemic is causing untold fear and suffering for older people across the world”, said United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres last week on the launch of the policy brief on older persons and coronavirus disease (COVID-19). “The fatality rate for older people is higher overall, and for those over 80, it is five times the global average.” Beyond its immediate health impact, the pandemic is putting older people at higher risk of poverty, discrimination and isolation. It is likely to have a particularly devastating effect on older people in developing countries, added Guterres.
The World Health Organization (WHO) also declared, “older people are at highest risk from COVID-19, but all must act to prevent community spread.” In India, government data shows that although only 19% of confirmed COVID-19 cases were among the elderly, 63% of deaths happened among them.
According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), population ageing has reached a level where it is having a significant impact on all sectors of the economy. To deliver the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), governments need to ensure that people of all age groups can live healthy, active and fulfilling lives. We cannot leave the older people behind! The UNFPA adds: "In order to cope with the ageing of the population, it is therefore no longer sufficient to meet the expectations and needs of the older population only, but it requires a more comprehensive approach to address its effects on all population groups." It recommends taking a life cycle approach. Preparing for old age from youth time will be very useful for a better life in old age and reduce the health burdens that may occur if unprepared otherwise. One generation can learn from one another, and aid each other to build stable, healthy and wholesome communities.
In the ongoing Sustainable Development e-Talks (#SDGtalks) series, co-hosted by Indian Institute of Management Indore and CNS, Chu Viet Nga from HelpAge International in Vietnam, shared that any programme aimed at helping the elderly should not merely focus on food and medication. It should be fulfilling in a multitude of ways. One of the critical ways they try to achieve this is through an intergenerational approach, where the focus is on building interaction between different generations, such as children and the elderly. The children train and spend time with the elderly and they, in turn, teach the children traditional arts and skills.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres had also underlined this aspect and said: "While physical distancing is crucial, let us not forget we are one community and we all belong to each other. We need improved social support and smarter efforts to reach older people…”. He added, "that is vital to older people who may face great suffering and isolation under lockdowns and other restrictions."
That is why the intergenerational approach was developed for older people to help all generations stay supported in these times in Vietnam. The elderly are denied their rights and are neglected even as they face new struggles that accompany new age. Dealing with age-discriminant workplace practices and lack of social support simply add to their woes. This involves a multidimensional approach towards psychological, social and financial support. HelpAge International has adopted and structured various activities around the intergenerational approach to bridge the gap between the generations in an admirable effort.
"When individuals reach old age, the various problems that they have to experience include a decline in health conditions, retirement, financial problems, loneliness and dependence upon others," wrote Dr Radhika Kapur, in her research paper: "Problems of the Aged People in India". Chu Viet Nga rightly pointed out that health support is not the only support that needs to be extended, and that is the gap which this intergenerational model aims to fill. According to Chu Viet Nga, social-psychological care is the first crucial part of the process. It primarily includes befriending lonely people, updating them on the latest information, especially about COVID-19 in the current scenario, and helping accompany them to nearby places. They try to find other ways to provide support by reciting poetry to them and spending more time with them, for example.
The second most crucial part is personal care support which is essential to elders as they grow older and doing mundane tasks, such as cooking and cleaning, becomes difficult for them. HelpAge makes use of its volunteers to pitch in and help them out with cooking food, cleaning the house and surrounding areas and other such tasks. Apart from this, the volunteers also help in the maintenance of personal hygiene such as taking care of nails, hair and bathing.
Thirdly, living support care is quintessential. Living support includes having enough money (through local fundraising), helping them access their pension and helping them out in their gardening and farming. Living support also includes procuring devices such as walking sticks or wheelchairs that will help them live with dignity.
Finally, the important thing in these uncertain times is health. There are regular check-ups for diabetes and hypertension patients as well as informing them about the ways they can/should take care of themselves. In case their health situation deteriorates, referring them to the nearest hospital/medical centre is also an integral responsibility taken up by HelpAge volunteers.
No person, young or old, is expendable
This is a pandemic, that needs not only individual awareness but also a collective awareness and action, and thus there is a lot to learn from this model adopted by HelpAge International. There are particular challenges we, Indians, face as a country. Though we are the second-most populous country in the world, we do not have secure enough public health systems and social security, and this has given us serious setbacks. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, pointed out last week that "No person, young or old, is expendable and that older people have the same rights to life and health as everyone else." He also added that, "Difficult decisions around life-saving medical care must respect the human rights and dignity of all." Social isolation, self-quarantine and the fundamental concern for the well-being of others can take us all ahead by significant leaps and bounds. This pandemic serves as a grim reminder that if even a single person amongst us gets struck with the virus, we all are in danger. While we can go ahead and contribute our money for the cause in various relief funds set up all over the country in this time of dire need, we can also do more by taking up the psychological and social approach on a personal level.
As countries move into lockdowns, it not only affects the economy of the country but can also affect the people in the country emotionally and mentally. Especially in increasing feelings such as, a sense of doom, depression, anxiety and loneliness. This is especially prevalent in people living alone. Being in touch with others despite distances is not difficult these days. A simple message, a timely phone call to your grandparents, and sharing a meme on Instagram can go a long way to help people those who have access to these methods for a virtual connection. The lonely student in your class? Your maternal grandmother you have not spoken to in the last few months? Your mom living in a different city alone? They are just a text message away. These small activities not only promote emotional support, but they also play a role in strengthening our bonds, because whether we like it or not, the pandemic is going to change us and our future significantly.
(Anjali Sunil, B Sai Sushma, Parv Julania, Pranav Raghuraman, Priya Sahu, K Shree Shantha are authors are students of Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Indore, India and part of the CNS (Citizen News Service) internship programme)