‘I’m going to die anyway’: Covid’s cruel toll on the elderly

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‘I’m going to die anyway’: Covid’s cruel toll on the elderly

Protecting older people from the virus is eroding their quality of life and independence, and fuelling their fears

Journalist
Achmat Karriem, 70, shares a house with 12 people, putting him at risk of Covid-19. Coughing prompted him to be tested.
Testing times Achmat Karriem, 70, shares a house with 12 people, putting him at risk of Covid-19. Coughing prompted him to be tested.
Image: Esa Alexander

Troy Petzer’s 75-year-old mother has heart failure and was lucky to live past Christmas. Under lockdown, Petzer cannot visit her mom who stays down the road in a retirement village in Cape Town.

“They are doing their best,” she says. “But I don’t know when we’ll be able to see her again. I don’t know if we will.”

Protecting older people from Covid-19 – most deadly for people older than 65 – is eroding their quality of life and independence.

Well-off pensioners isolated for their safety in institutions, which could nevertheless become virus hot spots, are being cut off from those they love.

Less privileged pensioners, living in crowded conditions, are particularly vulnerable – they tend to be more exposed to infection, have fewer chances to earn money, and have more demands on them, particularly if they are caring for schoolchildren.

Leaning on a crutch before taking a Covid-19 test, 70-year-old Achmat Karriem says he was bringing in about R50 a day hawking fruit in Mitchells Plain before lockdown.

He hobbles to a tent in the parking lot, where community testing is offered to people with symptoms. Karriem, who stays with 12 family members, has been coughing. He rears back when the nurse tries to take a sample from his nose, but she manages to swab his throat.

Julia Jansen, 77, does not want a test but is queuing for “tablets for high blood” because she says she could not get them from the clinic. Chronic conditions are common among the elderly.

Covid-19 has cut off many older people from their loved ones to try to reduce their vulnerability.
Cut off Covid-19 has cut off many older people from their loved ones to try to reduce their vulnerability.
Image: 123RF\marina113

The coronavirus is affecting older people more severely, says Dr Sebastiana Kalula, director of the Albertina and Walter Sisulu Institute of Ageing in Africa at UCT.

Older people are more vulnerable to anxiety and are losing the support networks on which they relied – with no end to the pandemic in sight.

 “When people get older and/or retire, they lose part of their identity. They lose partners and friends. Now they are losing support.

“They may have depended on a neighbour, a person in the next street, or attended senior centres, and these are no longer functioning,” says Kalula.

“As unemployment increases, abuse of their social grants will increase,” she fears.

Activities the elderly enjoy and find purposeful have been suspended under lockdown. Many do voluntary work, such as reading to preschoolers, and this too has been taken away.

The aged tend to be anxious, says Kerry Egan-Fowler, who runs a home for eight residents aged between 72 and 87, whose feelings about lockdown are mixed.

He does not use a smartphone and is scared to move out of the frail-care facility where he stays, which has had more than one Covid-19 death.

“Even before lockdown, my residents were expressing severe anxiety. Half of them were scared of catching it and dying, the other half were really concerned about losing their last bit of independence,” says Egan-Fowler.

“Two days after lockdown, one of our residents died in hospital (not of Covid-19). It was like losing a member of the family and the lockdown has meant that our residents have not been able to have a memorial or a funeral service for closure.

“Some residents are very anxious and are wanting more contact with their loved ones. They are saying: ‘I’m going to die anyway. I’ve missed out on my birthday and missed Mother’s Day, and I’ve only got a few years left’.”

As residents of institutions are forced into isolation, so too are pensioners living alone, including an 86-year-old grandmother with only two Jack Russells for company.

“I do not go out to exercise. It is too dangerous,” she says, preferring not to be named. Cape Town Against Corona volunteers do her grocery shopping.

Before lockdown her six children would visit, but she says she is fine. “I’m used to being on my own.”

Many older people have not been shown how to use the latest technology and are unable to stay in touch, says Kalula.

Martha Evans wishes she could talk face to face with her father about coming to live across the road from them.

He does not use a smartphone and is scared to move out of the frail-care facility where he stays, which has had more than one Covid-19 death.

“If we could sit down and talk and I could introduce the carer in mind, he could conceive of a different and happier reality. We could see him and he could see his grandkids,” says Evans, who has twin girls of eight.

Her father was in hospital for six months and she last saw him after taking him to hospital for a drip. She asks: “Is this the last time I’m going to see him?

“I write letters and drop them off with snacks. I print out pictures in the letters to cheer him up.”

If we could sit down and talk and I could introduce the carer in mind, he could conceive of a different and happier reality.

Most institutions have carers coming in and out for shifts, and relatives said that they wished they could allow at least one close family member to visit under strict conditions.

Stressing how fortunate she and her husband are to live safely in a Fish Hoek retirement village, Ethne Egan-Fower says she wishes they could still talk to family over the fence.

“In the beginning I was quite upbeat. We are coping and living in the now, but it is hard not knowing how long this will last,” she says, finding lockdown restrictions irksome.

Her husband, Chuck, turns 90 in August, but won’t be having a birthday party if Covid-19 is still rampant.

“I feel like I might never get out of here again,” he says loudly, in the background. “I’m going to die sometime soon. I just want to see my family!”