Older people 'especially isolated during lockdown': study

01 October 2020 - 07:00
A recent study shows that older people with cognitive impairment have had limited social contact during the Covid-19 pandemic.
A recent study shows that older people with cognitive impairment have had limited social contact during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Image: 123RF/Katarzyna Białasiewicz

Older people with cognitive impairment have had smaller social networks and less frequent communication with others during the coronavirus pandemic, a Wits University study has found. 

“South Africa is emerging from arguably one of the strictest lockdown responses to the Covid-19 pandemic worldwide,” said Dr Ryan Wagner, a researcher at the South African Medical Research Council/Wits Agincourt Research Unit in Mpumalanga.

“We know that Covid-19, the disease that made the lockdown necessary, disproportionately affects older (aged 40+ years) adults, especially those with co-morbidities, but it’s possible that Covid-19 has had, and continues to have, effects on older individuals’ cognitive function.”

Wagner is co-author of the study, titled "Social contact, social support, and cognitive health in a population-based study of middle-aged and older men and women in rural South Africa".

According to the study, the lockdown and its element of isolation “adversely” affected the cognitive function in older people.

“Older people were especially isolated during lockdown, both in old-age care homes where no one was allowed to visit and trips outside were severely limited, but particularly old people living alone, who were afraid to go out or accept visitors,” he said.

The study analysed responses of 5,000 people aged 40 or older about their social connectedness and linked their responses to cognitive tests.

“The patterns we found suggest that cognitively impaired older adults in this setting rely on their core social networks for support, and that theories relating to social connectedness and cognitive function developed in higher-income and higher-education settings may also apply in lower-resource settings elsewhere,” said Wagner.

It was important for connections with older persons to be maintained through phone calls, visits and letter writing to protect them against cognitive decline, he said.

“There’s the saying ‘use it or lose it’, so let’s get our older friends together, stimulate their cognitive skills and strengthen their neural connections through engaging meaningfully with them.

 “As older people continue to live longer, and households are no longer multi-generational – with younger relatives moving to urban areas – we need to find new ways to engage with the elderly and ensure their care maintains connectedness.”

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