3 May 2020

More support needed for the elderly even outside lockdowns

3:01 pm on 3 May 2020

Some vulnerable older people will still need help with basic tasks like getting their grocery shopping done, even after the pandemic is over, community organisations say.

Depressed elderly widow sitting alone at home

Photo: 123RF

The country's Covid-19 lockdown has put the spotlight on the struggle many isolated older people face. And over the past few weeks New Zealanders have been urged to check in on their neighbours to make sure they have everything they need.

Volunteer-led initiatives have also popped up to help deliver food and groceries.

But isolation and barriers to supermarket access existed well before Covid-19, and more help is needed for the elderly - regardless of the pandemic, organisations working with older people say.

Age Concern Auckland chief executive Kevin Lamb said they have proactively called their 10,000 members to check in and see if they have everything they need.

While a lot of them are supported by family and friends, he said there is a large number of older people who don't have that help and are living quite isolated lives.

For them life wasn't much different under lockdown - it was how they lived all the time, Lamb said.

"It shouldn't have to be - it really isn't right they have to experience this, but it is the reality.

"And for a lot of them, they can't go out and do those basic things, like shopping."

There could be a number of reasons for that, including mobility and health issues, and a lack of confidence, Lamb said.

Online options weren't always the answer for older people, who often lack digital literacy skills and don't have access to a computer, smartphone and the internet.

District health boards do provide help for housebound older people, but others don't meet that threshold for support, Lamb said.

For that group there needs to be better organised community-based support.

During the lockdown Age Concern Auckland has had an "army of volunteers" helping older people get their shopping, medicines and other essentials.

"We could take the shopping order over the phone, the volunteer would go to the supermarket when they were doing their own shopping and also buy for the older person.

"They would drop off the older person's things at their doorstep, walk away, phone up to say 'I've delivered it for you'," Lamb said.

Payments were made via a bank transfer or with cash left in an envelope at the door.

Lamb said in coming months there needs to be more thought given to how older people can continue to be supported, beyond Covid-19.

"What we're really hoping is, when we all come out of this ... we don't forget that significant minority of older people," he said.

"For a lot of those people, they're going to be potentially left behind and we must not forget them - they still need help, they still need support, and they are still vulnerable if they don't get that help and support."

Wesley Community Action elder care team manager Claire Booth agreed.

A lot of her work focuses on supporting older people with chronic health problems living alone, so they can continue to live independently in the community.

Even under normal circumstances, Booth said getting the grocery shopping done and eating well was a pretty tenuous proposition for this group of people - and Covid-19 had brought that into sharp focus.

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Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Many of them are unable to cook a decent meal, and are reliant on Meals on Wheels, dietary supplements and the assistance of homecare support workers.

Booth said her organisation was able to ramp up its community pantry to get food to people in need, and social workers went out and bought heat-and-eat meals.

But there needs to be a well-organised, sustainable and safe service to help older people get their grocery shopping done if they are unable to get to the supermarket themselves.

"Technological solutions just don't work for older people who haven't kept up with the times," Booth said.

Face-to-face support was especially important for older people who are isolated or don't have family or friends to help them.

That might mean someone with a laptop going to someone's home to help them through the process of setting up a regular online grocery shop, and ensuring they are able to get the food they liked.

"Taking the time to establish a safe online ordering system for a regular grocery shop, and then a phone call once a week to say, 'do you need anything that's different on your list?' and doing a re-order and drop off - I think would be great," Booth said.

She hopes local communities - and older people themselves - will rally together to come up with longer-term solutions to help vulnerable people beyond Covid-19.

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