A University of Otago geriatrician and researcher is calling on neighbours and extended family to reach out to support older New Zealanders potentially struggling with their physical and mental health, with the imminent shift to Level 3 lockdown for much of the country from Wednesday.
Dr Hamish Jamieson holds genuine concerns for the health of many isolated elderly patients already dealing with cardiac and respiratory problems – problems he says will be exacerbated by the stress of lockdown.
“It's clinically accepted that heart and breathing problems, as well as pain symptoms, anxiety and depression actually get worse in lockdown situations as a result of isolation, which brings with it stress, loneliness and confusion.
“We know some older New Zealanders suffered heart attacks during last year's lockdown which were only picked up when they eventually visited their GP, specialist or health provider once they felt confident to leave their homes again. Other anecdotal reports indicate that some patients diagnosed with heart failure experienced a worsening of their condition due to a reluctance to seek help.”
Dr Jamieson, from the University of Otago Christchurch's Department of Medicine, says more than 500,000 Kiwis aged over 70 are likely facing isolation at home. He believes the shift from Level 4 to Level 3, with its slight expansion of household bubbles, is a golden opportunity for extended family and neighbours to reach out to them, to support not just their physical health and access to food and warmth, but their mental health and wellbeing.
“Anxiety and depression are exacerbated with the loneliness and isolation that lockdown brings. Just a quick phone call, or chat over the fence may make all the difference, ensuring of course that health ministry Level 3 lockdown rules on localised travel, social-distancing and masking are strictly followed.
“Some older people struggle with technology and may need help in booking appointments or making online contact with agencies and organisations who can support them.”
In research published by Dr Jamieson and colleagues in 2017, one in five elderly New Zealanders described themselves as being “chronically lonely”. This number is likely to increase under extended lock-down conditions, he says.
A further University of Otago study carried out by Dr Jamieson last year found older people who described themselves as lonely were almost 20 per cent more likely than others to move into a rest home, even when physically well.
Dr Jamieson is praising the Government for spreading the message that people should continue to seek medical care for non-COVID illnesses, and not be put off by a fear of contracting the virus.
“I do hope older people hear and heed the message, including letting their GP know about any issues with their health from ongoing problems. Now is not the time to hold back and suffer in silence.”
For further information, contact:
Dr Hamish Jamieson
Department of Medicine
University of Otago, Christchurch
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