“As the socio-demographic group most at risk of falling severely ill or even dying after contracting COVID-19, there’s no doubt that the over-60’s has been the worst affected by the pandemic. However, the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the older generation reaches beyond the risks to their physical health.
“To make matters worse, the elderly are not only battling the physical health effects of the virus, they’re also facing the toll that the virus has taken on their mental health – thanks to COVID-imposed isolation”, explains Gus van der Spek (property developer and owner of a life rights company).
“Many elderly people across South Africa live alone and had already been struggling with feelings of isolation and loneliness before the pandemic began, but with the very real threat of COVID-19, these issues only worsened.”
How an existing threat to elderly wellbeing was exacerbated by COVID-19
Loneliness and social isolation for those not living in retirement communities is a well-documented issue facing the older generation, brought on by factors such as the loss of a partner, having family emigrate, losing touch with friends and withdrawing from community activities.
“The physical and mental health risks to elderly people living in isolation are numerous: it increases the risk of premature death, dementia and is associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide,” explains van der Spek.
The threat of COVID-19 forced even elderly people with community ties and family nearby to go into isolation. Government communication urged over-60’s to stay home as much as possible and family members and friends needed to stay away to reduce the risk of infecting the more vulnerable older generation. Churches and other community centres (which formed the basis of many of these individuals’ social lives) had to close their doors.
“To add to this, while the rest of the world turned to technology as a tool to keep them connected to loved ones, many elderly people struggled to adapt to these tools, especially those who lived alone with no one around to walk them through it,” adds van der Spek.
Community living as a lifeline
Thankfully, not all over-60’s were left to grapple with the physical and mental challenges of COVID-19 on their own. “Those residing in retirement communities were able to interact with their friends and friendly staff members on a daily basis,” he says.
While it is true that nursing homes and frail-care were hit particularly hard by COVID-19 as they were often the location for concentrated outbreaks, van der Spek explains that is unfortunately as a result of the close living conditions in these facilities and the underlying health conditions typically found in nursing home and frail-care residents.
“However, those who had opted to live in retirement lifestyle villages and estates were able to isolate in their own units, with plenty of space to themselves while still interacting safely ‘masked-up’ outdoors with other residents and staff when necessary”.
“Residents of these kinds of retirement communities were able to have the best of both worlds – they had the safety of their own units rather than a single room in close contact to other sick people, and they were able to interact with their neighbours safely outdoors within the boundaries of a safe, access-controlled environment,” he adds.
More senior living options to combat elderly isolation
Van der Spek says he is partly motivated by the desire to combat isolation amongst the elderly and to give them a home that promotes overall wellbeing. “Research indicates that community living has proven to significantly improve the physical and mental health and happiness of the older generation, and we’re proud that our Estate will soon be a part of those efforts.”
Six ways in which living in retirement lifestyle estates help to combat elderly isolation:
1) An abundance of new friends close by. “While there are obviously more ways to connect with your friends and neighbours without the threat of COVID-19, it is still possible to socialise with your neighbours outdoors, with masks on and while 1.5 metres apart.”
2) Staff on hand to talk through needs. “If residents are feeling lonely or that they have no one to talk to about their emotions, they know that professional staff are always on hand to listen and offer solutions where possible.”
3) Assistance with connecting to loved ones. “Many elderly people desperately want to video-chat with family and friends who they aren’t able to see in person, but they are unsure of how to go about it. The Estates staff are able to help get them set-up and comfortable with using these tools.”
4) Beautiful grounds to socialise safely outdoors. “If you’re not comfortable interacting closely with other people yet but would still like to see them and wave hello, many retirement villages feature beautiful gardens so that you don’t have to be stuck inside on your own all day.”
5) Access to top medical practitioners who can spot the signs of elderly people suffering from loneliness before it escalates. “As feelings of isolation can lead to depression, anxiety and even thoughts of suicide, it’s important to have access to medical practitioners who can identify and treat these symptoms.”
6) Smart technology that keeps a watchful eye. “Some retirement villages use smart technology such as sensors in the floor next to the resident’s bed to monitor if they’ve gotten up that day. This is primarily used as way to detect if a resident is ill but could also be used as an way to detect symptoms of depression.”
“Finally, once the threat of COVID-19 subsides, most retirement lifestyle villages and estates will organise regular community events and activities to encourage socialisation among residents and ensure that there is a strong sense of community to combat feelings of loneliness and isolation amongst the elderly,” van der Spek concludes.”
Shire offers Development Consulting: Assisting Property Developers in the planning and execution of all key elements of new retirement villages. To contact us, click here.