Infection from Covid-19, and the restrictions imposed to curb it, has led to increased frailty among the older population which could impact their ability to live independently or recover from illnesses, a consultant at Cork University Hospital has warned.
People over 70 are at the highest risk of severe illness from Covid-19, while people over 60 are also advised to take extra care to protect themselves.
While contracting Covid-19 can have severe, even deadly consequences, for the older population, Covid-19 restrictions have also had an impact on the health and wellbeing of the older population, according to Dr Kirstyn James, consultant in geriatric medicine at Cork University Hospital (CUH).
Speaking to The Echo, Dr James explained that the pandemic has affected older people in many ways.
“They have been asked to stay at home and physically distance more than many other patient groups,” she said.
“Community services such as day centres and exercise classes have been put on hold.
“Many older adults have had to completely change their lifestyle and daily routine and this has had a negative impact on the health and wellbeing of many."
Since the beginning of the pandemic, geriatric services at CUH are encountering a higher number of cases involving frailty in the older population, Dr James revealed.
“A medical condition that we encounter frequently in geriatric medicine is frailty,” she explained.
“Frailty happens when you have multiple medical conditions and then also experience changes in your muscle strength, weight, thinking and memory.
“Frailty can affect your ability to live independently and recover from illness,” she said.
“We are undoubtedly seeing more older people with frailty due to recent Covid-19 infection or the effects of Covid-19 restrictions.”
Another impact of Covid-19 restrictions is the sudden social isolation being experienced by many older people across Cork and Ireland, Dr James explained.
“Social isolation and loneliness has become more common. This could definitely impact on physical and mental wellbeing, both now and in the future.
“We know that an important way to maintain muscle strength and brain function in older age is regular exercise and this has of course been more difficult,” she added.
“Socialising with other people is very important for maintaining a healthy mind, mood and memory.”
With the older population proving to be more vulnerable from the effects of the virus, geriatric services had to adapt quickly to the situation to ensure elderly patients were still being cared for amid the pandemic.
Dr James explained that, as a result of the arrival of Covid-19, entering the hospital became a “frightening prospect” for many patients last year.
“The geriatric medicine team has adapted in several ways during the Covid-19 pandemic,” she said.
“We try to offer older people a range of services in addition to coming to the hospital during the pandemic, which can be a frightening prospect.
“These include video and telephone consultations where appropriate and the rapid access geriatric medicine clinic based in St Finbarr’s Hospital,” she added.
“We also have a team of healthcare professionals skilled in the care of older people — the Geriatric Emergency Multidisciplinary Service — who work alongside the CUH Emergency Department team and aim to see older patients who attend the emergency department.”
The development of several vaccines to combat Covid-19 towards the end of last year and the commencement of a vaccine programme across Ireland in recent weeks was some “much needed good news,” explained Dr James.
She said the vaccination programme, which aims to vaccinate the over 70s first, could see the older population across Cork and Ireland return to some sense of normality in the not so distant future.
“The vaccination programme is much needed good news,” Dr James stated.
“I hope to see that older people will be able to resume doing what matters most to them as soon as possible — be that visiting grandchildren, going to a Tai Chi class, or meeting a friend for a cup of coffee.
“Resuming formal community classes and services that older people use will be integral to that.”
Dr James highlighted free local authority helplines for older people in need of assistance or information during the pandemic.
Cork City Council’s helpline on 1800 222 226 operates seven days a week from 8am to 8pm while Cork County Council’s helpline on 1800 805 819 operates seven days a week from 9am to 5pm.