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Don’t forget the elderly

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Muscat: One group of people in the society who have been protected by not visiting during the pandemic is the elderly.  Whether it is the weekends or the two Eids of the year 2020, when it would have been filled with young and old family members and friends, these days this year have been quiet.

Loneliness could be a major risk factor to develop mental health problems such as depression and even dementia, said the chairman of Oman Alzheimer’s Society.

“Loneliness is a big issue even without the pandemic.  At the onset of COVID-19, the general message that was conveyed was that the senior citizens are at risk and this caused such a panic and anxiety to the elderly and also for the people who are looking after them.  Gradually the message became clearer and the fact is this virus can affect everybody as well as the elderly when they have diabetes, hypertension, asthma, heart problems. The message was to protect the elderly by controlling social contacts, physical distancing and preferably not to move from one house to the other,” reflected Dr Hamed al Sinawi, Senior Consultant Psychiatrist, Sultan Qaboos University Hospital.

Dr Hamed explained, "This meant that they could not visit uncles and aunts as in Oman the extended family members are also crucial.  They also missed the grandchildren and birthdays as well as other family occasions like graduations, anniversaries etc.

“The daily routine of the elderly such as going out to the mosques five times a day, meeting up with neighbours and friends were taken away because of the COVID. All this meant they were not only under stress and anxiety from catching the virus but they were also deprived of the social interactions and contacts.  The anxiety has people waiting when the virus is going to come and catch them and who is going to be next,” he said.

The advice Dr Hamed and team have for the elderly is; “Try to cut down on news.  It is important to stay informed but do not overdo it.”

“Some people could not sleep, while others had nightmares and began to be constantly worried even when they were taking precautions such as washing their hands and staying away from people who are at risk.  But this constant anxiety became an issue and we started seeing people coming to our clinic and some of them even had to come in as in-patients to take them away from a stressful environment,” he noted.

Taking up hobbies and staying has been a piece of advice given to most people, but what about the senior citizens?

“The elderly are at a disadvantage slightly because some of them do not have access to social media and may not be technology savvy and do not have WhatsApp groups.  Before COVID-19 people who have had mental health issues and were used to have their caregivers who were also their family members ensuring they take their medications and are well fed and that they do not venture out on their own.  But in this situation, even the caregivers began to feel the stress.  In some families a person with dementia would have been looked after by different family members or someone would visit to relieve the caregiver because it can be a consuming job.  So when this happened and when people started practicing social distancing the advice was not to move houses or switching caregivers so this again was taxing on caregivers,” he pointed out.

But families soon began to get creative with activities that would suit the person concerned.

“In Oman we have senior citizens who were teachers, doctors and other professionals who could be interested in talking about their life journeys and their old memories going through their albums and give description of them.  This has given them joy in expressing themselves - even participating in cooking and doing the minimum.  It could be colouring- they would enjoy it and is not just meant for kids,” he added.

Coincidentally just before COVID, an initiative from ‘Friends of the Elderly’, an NGO in Oman held a training session for the elderly on how to use social media.  It was supported by one of the telecom companies.

This was very exciting for the attendees and the skills become very handy.  During the lockdown, some of the families were stranded in other governorates and they were able to stay connected and see each other.  If not texting they have learned to send recorded messages.

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