New Zealanders are being urged to pick up the phone and call their elderly loved ones amid the Covid-19 pandemic as concerns loom for the mental impact of isolation.
"We are encouraging friends, family and communities to find new ways to keep connected, from Skype calls, delivering a meal and phoning each other to leaving notes of kindness in mailboxes," Stephanie Clare, chief executive Age Concern New Zealand, told the Herald.
Her comments come as thousands of elderly living in New Zealand are being physically cut off from their family members under the Ministry of Health's new regulations to limit the spread of the virus.
On Monday, the Government issued all aged-care providers with updated guidelines for managing the pandemic, including advising all visitors to stay away if ill and anyone within the facilities to keep at least two metres distance from each other.
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The World Health Organisation says those aged 80-plus suffer mortality rates of 20 per cent. This has been echoed by the Ministry of Health who have said older people, particularly those with pre-existing health problems, were more likely to suffer severe illness.
The Herald spoke to experts in the age-care sector to find out how our most vulnerable demographic were coping and what the general public could do to help ease the hardship.
"Many elderly have been told they can't go to weddings, birthdays or other family gatherings which they have been looking forward to and are disappointed because it could well be the last time they see them but at the same time they understand," Grey Power national president Mac Welch said.
Clare said social isolation was a huge issue for some of our older Kiwis and staying connected in a safe way was so important to prevent loneliness.
"Too often we hear of people not wanting to be a burden or make a fuss, please make a fuss. We have amazing staff and volunteers who can help direct you to the support or information you need," the Age Concern boss said.
Welch said all the elderly he had spoken to had been paying attention and were taking the ministry's advice extremely seriously.
"When you get to our age and stage you know how mortal you are as different bits of you have fallen off and haven't worked as well as they used to, so they are all taking it very seriously."
The Grey Power leader said he had heard a lot of criticism from the elderly generation about people panic-buying.
"Many of them who experienced rationing through the World Wars and they know that if people started hoarding then bigger problems arise.
"Older people are far more schooled than the younger generation are - they have been through wars, bird flu, Sars. We have been there, done that, got the T-shirts," Welch said.
Ryman Healthcare's David King said: "We have been checking temperatures at reception with a thermometer since last week. We are using electronic ear thermometers which are very reliable. We are doing this at our offices as well."
King said all non-essential visits should be put on hold, along with all visits to Ryman hospitals by children.
Group activities in villages would be stopped "including happy hours and Triple-A exercise classes", he said.
The 28-village Summerset Group with about 5000 residents is asking those who have been overseas in the last 14 days, those ill or with cold or flu symptoms, to stay away. A new sign-in process applies with a declaration from visitors and relatives that they meet Summerset's new guidelines.
Metlifecare, with more than 5000 residents, has cancelled all open days and is asking external groups not to visit until further notice, restricting visiting hours to hospitals "to protect our most vulnerable residents" and asking all visitors to sign a declaration "to ensure they are well upon entering our villages, have not travelled overseas in the last 14 days, and are not living with someone who is in self-isolation".
Five things people can do to help elderly:
1. Pick up the phone and talk to your elderly loved one.
"Remember you are a son, daughter, granddaughter, grandson, and a phone call can mean the world," Grey Power national president Mac Welch said.
2. Write a letter or card to a rest home.
On Instagram, American actress and comedian Heidi Gardner's has been encouraging people to send a card to a rest home "to cheer them up". Her posts have been going viral. Senior citizens need our love more than ever right now, the celebrity said.
3. Help delivering meals and running errands.
All elderly are being advised to avoid crowds so they aren't able to visit the supermarket or carry out their daily errands. Offering to do this for them can go a long way. Age Concern New Zealand's chief executive Stephanie Clare advised elderly: "This is not a time to sit in silence, if you are worried about anything from your medication and food supplies through to your mental wellbeing you should call us."
4. Leave a kind note in your elderly neighbour's letterbox.
Health experts have stressed the impact isolation can have particularly on elderly mental wellbeing. Leaving a kind note could make them smile.
5. Wash your hands.
If you touch someone or something that has the virus, you are at risk getting it as well. Covid-19 can spread via coughing, sneezing, or airborne transmission.
The best preventative is to wash your hands often, whether with soap and water or hand sanitiser that contains 60 per cent alcohol. Also cover your coughs and sneezes so the droplets don't spread about, just in case you do have the virus.