The pandemic has not only amplified the loneliness and mental health of senior citizens but significantly tampered with their daily, comfortable routine.

Representative image for a senior citizenImage for representation
Coronavirus Mental Health Sunday, April 25, 2021 - 19:06

Eighty-year-old Thresia, a native of Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district, couldn't hold back her tears when she spoke about her little sister, Achamma, who is 75 years old. Achamma was living with a domestic worker in one of the villages in Pathanamthitta until her son took her with him to Ireland a few months ago. "I would visit her frequently or she would come to meet me as we lived within a radius of 10 to 12 kilometres. Because of the lockdown, I could not meet my sister for a long time. Once it was lifted, we were able to meet each other and I was happy. However, her son took her to Ireland with him as he did not want his elderly mother to live alone during the pandemic, although she never wanted to leave her house. Now, I heard that she is not well, which means, I won’t be able to meet her again. This pandemic won't end, and we can never meet," says Thresia as weeps. It has been about five months since she last met her sister.

Senior citizens like Thresia and Achamma were perhaps the most affected — both mentally and physically — when the COVID-9 pandemic hit in early 2020. Irrespective of their financial or social status, the pandemic affected them, one way or the other. While the pandemic amplified their loneliness and mental tension, the infectious disease resulted in poor physical health. It even interfered with their routine, in which they sought comfort.

For example, Vivekanandan is a 78-year-old retired teacher from Thiruvananthapuram. He was active and had a set routine till the pandemic, says his son, who didn’t want to be named. “My father used to go out for a walk in the mornings, later go to the market or some coastal area to buy some fish and other groceries. After lunch and a nap, he would go out to meet his friends in a tea shop nearby. Ever since his retirement 23 years ago, he has followed this routine. But not anymore,” he tells TNM. “During the lockdown, I did not allow him to step out. Even after the lockdown, I asked him to limit his travel outside. I was scared.”

However, the forced lockdown routine made the 78-year-old depressed and physically weak. “I had to take him for counselling to my friend, who is a psychologist. But, even now, I cannot allow my father to go back to his routine since the COVID-19 cases are increasing. My family is extremely worried," says his son.

Vivekanandan sometimes refuses to talk to anyone, as he is angry with his son. "He believes that I locked him in a room intentionally," he adds.

For many older adults like Vivekanandan, missing their physical activities, not being able to run errands or meet friends in public parks, among others, has brought great agony.

"As we say, the older people are like children. They have their own things that give them happiness. They cannot easily accept changes. This will manifest as anger, depression, or even make them physically weak,” says Devika, a psychologist based in the Ernakulam district of Kerala. “After a certain age, all individuals go through a certain stage of loneliness. The pandemic, lockdown, the vulnerability to infections and concerns over it, everything just heightens already existing depression in older people," she explains.

Eight-two-year-old Ouseph and 78-year-old Annamma, a couple from the Kottayam district, say how the pandemic shattered their dream of living with their son, for at least a few months. "We have a lot of illness, and ever since the pandemic began, it has only increased as we just sit inside the house all the time,” says Annamma.

Before the pandemic was declared, their son, who resides in the United Kingdom, had promised to visit them in April 2020. He booked the tickets and planned to stay with us for six months. “It was a long-time dream for us as our son had not visited us for the last three years,” says Annamma. However, due to the lockdown, the trip was cancelled.

Later, when flights resumed, he and his family were diagnosed with COVID-19. His journey was further delayed. “We hear about these things sitting in this house. At one point, he (Ouseph) could not bear all this. He suffered a cardiac arrest in January this year. Some of our distant relatives stayed with him in hospital. He is getting better now,” she says, adding that Ouseph takes out his distress on her and yells at her for no reason.

“I always have this feeling that I am all alone now. I don't think my son can come this year too, as the situation is similar to what it was in 2020," Annamma says with a sigh. In fact, Annamma says she has been living alone for the most part of her life.

A sense of deep pain over her loneliness reflected in her words as she spoke further to this reporter. "Ouseph was in Dubai for 35 years. After my son went for his studies abroad, I lived here alone. Even at this age, I am all alone.”

Theyyamma of Kozhikode district is 70 years old. She feels that it is time for her to die. "I lost my husband when I was 32 years old. My daughter was just three years old then. Though another marriage was an easy option for me, I did not do that. I took up all kinds of odd jobs to survive. My daughter works as a nurse now in Mumbai and is living there with her husband. Earlier, I used to visit her frequently. Now, she doesn't allow me to visit her as it is risky. The pain I have gone through since March 2020 is unbearable. Maybe this is the pain we feel when death comes," she says.

Raveendran, an 87-year-old, and a resident of the Kannur district, was very active until the lockdown. Now, he barely comes out of his room, says his daughter Rema. "Earlier, he used to walk around a lot in our small town. He was once an active politician. He used to visit the small tea shops, engaged in political conversations with others and even travelled alone by bus,” she recounts.

As the pandemic began, Raveendran stopped going out. “He just sleeps in his room most of the time. He even insists that his food be served in his room. When I ask him to step out, he says everything has to end once," says Rema, adding, “This silence is painful now.”

Krishnan was an auto driver in Kozhikode. The 67-year-old stopped going to work when the lockdown was announced. "I was not a person who sits at home. A few months ago, I tested positive for coronavirus and was hospitalised for a few days as I had breathing issues. After that, I did not go to work at all,” he tells TNM.

“I have no savings other than this house. All these years, I was running around to live. Now, sometimes, I think about what is the use of my life," he says.

An intervention beyond helpline

Many of the older adults TNM spoke to had anger and anxiety suffused in their words. However, while the state is fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, it is also important to discuss possible interventions for them.

When the pandemic began, the Kerala state Social Justice Department had started a helpline, where the older adults could seek medical and emotional support. The department said they were getting many calls from the elderly every day. The helpline was functional till March 2021 and the department plans to resume it again.

The Kerala police, too, had started a helpline called Prasanthi, where senior citizens could call Senior the Kerala janamaithri police on 9497900035 and 9497900045, to seek medical help, counselling and necessary services. “This service is started during the lockdown period as the elderly who are staying alone are at high risk for depression and stress,” said the Kerala police website.

However, according to psychologist Devika, a helpline call or a visit to them may not help. “As the world is facing such a situation for the first time, an effective intervention, other than a helpline, has to be discussed. There could be door-to-door counselling, although it would be complex as many senior citizens have one or another health and mental health issues. But they certainly need a helping hand," she says.

Read: ‘The Invisible Humans’ captures the plight of elderly during COVID-19

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