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'Elderly are the new breadwinners'

In addition to having to deal with the health implications of the Covid-19 pandemic, organisations that work with the aged say the elderly have come under increased strain during the lockdown. Picture: Pixabay.com

In addition to having to deal with the health implications of the Covid-19 pandemic, organisations that work with the aged say the elderly have come under increased strain during the lockdown. Picture: Pixabay.com

Published Jun 22, 2020

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LIFESTLE - The Covid-19 pandemic and the related lockdown have resulted in the elderly coming under increased abuse, threat and strain.

In addition to elders being the most vulnerable group to infection, organisations that work with them have observed that since the lockdown, the aged have suffered more strain physically, emotionally and financially.

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Kogie Govender, a social work manager at the Aryan Benevolent Home in Chatsworth, said Covid-19 had devastating effects in the community.

She said breadwinners were forced to stay at home during the lockdown, a number of factories and businesses had been closed and people had been retrenched.  

“As a result, it is the elderly who have become the breadwinners of the home - with their state grants. Families are now forced to use old-age pensions as the main source of income for households because the breadwinners cannot afford to take care of themselves or their children,” said Govender.

She said the elderly, therefore, could not take care of themselves or buy their essentials and had to look after their children, grandchildren and extended family.

“Added to this is the social strain of the lockdown,” said Govender.

“Loneliness and depression have become a major issue. They are not able to go out to the weekly senior citizen outings or to visit family.

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“This pandemic and lockdown have resulted in strain in terms of family life. Communication has become poor, the elderly have become isolated and neglected, and find themselves sometimes in a situation even where proper nutrition is not given to them. It has caused a heavy strain, physically and emotionally.”

Broader effects of lockdown

Fathima Khan-Harripershad, a social worker and manager at the Verulam Day and Frail Care Centre, said because they provided a 24/7 service, they were called to assist with several emergency cases involving the aged during the lockdown.

“We were approached for emergency placement where the elderly were abused physically, emotionally and financially. But in the pandemic, a challenge we have is that we, as a frail care centre, remain on lockdown level 5 in the best interest of the safety of our patients.

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“So anyone who is brought in has to go through all the Covid-19 protocols. This includes a period of isolation, and this can be emotionally straining for the elderly, but it is necessary to protect the vulnerable who we care for.”

She said about 300 elderly from the community came to their service centre from Sunday to Friday for clinic visits, food hampers and social services.

“We have had to limit this in the lockdown. When our patients come to collect their medication, they tell us that they are lonely and depressed because they are being forced to stay at home now. For many, coming to our centre was also a way to socialise, escape family problems and issues, and keep their own sanity.”

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Khan-Harripershad said there had been a major financial impact.

“A lot of the elderly still have responsibilities, bills to pay, and they cannot survive on the state grant. They need to supplement their grants by doing something small to generate a little extra income. This was not possible during the lockdown.

“Some live alone and feel stranded because they cannot go out or see their families, or there is a limited amount of people who can see them. Many of them have been skipping their medical appointments which has become an issue.

“At an institutional level, many organisations have had to streamline staff because of a lack of funding, and so we have smaller numbers of staff on rotation. This change in the system is disorientating and stressful for the frail who need continuity.

“These are many of the effects of the lockdown that has the elderly emotionally exacerbated, which affects their physical health and puts them at greater risk during the pandemic.”

Khan-Harripershad said a major challenge in tackling elder abuse was getting them to open up about it.

“It’s difficult as many of them are from the old school of thought of protecting their children. Many abuse cases go unreported for this reason.”

Elder abuse may be escalating

Femada Shamam, chief executive of The Association For The Aged, said the organisation was frustrated that like other domestic abuses, elder abuse might be escalating at an unchecked rate.

She said there were variations of abuse including isolation, neglect and financial and physical abuse.

“We are concerned for the plight of elders facing the stresses and frustrations of lockdown,” said Shamam.

“What differentiates elder abuse from other domestic abuses is the abuse of power in adult and familial relationships, which usually stems from an elder’s caregiver destroying the trust relationship through behaviours. This includes neglect, isolation, financial and even physical abuse.

“Last month, we initiated a conversation in the form of an informal survey to assess the well-being of elders during the lockdown. Of the 224 elders who responded to us nationally, we found that increased anxiety and fear were a real issue for older people, considered most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“The latest statistics indicate that a staggering 56.2% of the total Covid-19-related deaths were in the 60- to 99-year category. For many, increased anxiety translates to physical ailments, making this population even more susceptible to the impacts of the pandemic.”

Shamam said while the country was experiencing the impact of the pandemic, older people were the hardest hit.

“Think, for instance, of the elder who lives alone, with no access to media, family or transportation. How would she know where to access food hampers, grants and other relief aides?

“Think of a younger family member who has recently been laid off and seeks support from that elder for their own sustenance?”

Shamam said fear, anxiety, distrust and abuse were reflections of the deep-seated ageist behaviours that needed to be stamped out.

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