The lived experience of COVID-19 lockdown for 12 older people in the South West of England.

By the SERVICE project team.  

COVID-19 has caused widespread concern about the social and emotional resilience of vulnerable people. In order to help understand the services needing the most support, and design technology to assist with coping with the pandemic, we interviewed older people about their lived experience of lock-down and self-isolation, and explored how they are adapting and adjusting to the new normal. 

With the fantastic support from Age UK Exeter (https://www.ageuk.org.uk/exeter/), particularly the work of Jessica Cohen, we interviewed 12 older people (> 50 years old, 10 female, 2 male) between late May and early June 2020. Lockdown in the UK was from mid-March and the gradual reduction of restrictions started in early May, although some restrictions are still in place as we write this. All interviewees were white British, all except two live alone, and they have various co-morbidities including dementia, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, fibromyalgia, cancer, depression, and mobility disabilities. One person has caring responsibilities. 

As we recruited the sample through Age UK Exeter, this reduces problems of self-selection for research, however the sample is demographically homogenous being mainly white and female and from the South West of England. 

In this blog post we give an overview of the 5 main themes that we identified and summarise the implications of each for policy and future planning. We are in the process of writing a more detailed paper, focusing in particular on loneliness. 

  1. No one was prepared for what was to come. 

Early this year no one expected the novel Coronavirus to affect our daily lives as much as it has done. 

For the older people we interviewed this inability to anticipate lockdown did lead to a short period of shock, and people reported feeling stressed and anxious. However, they were able to find the necessary care and support they needed and reported feeling pleased at how helpful most people were, although communications with medical/healthcare services could have been clearer. For people needing care and health services at home (including personal care, community nurse visits, or medication delivery), they realised that the care packages they had in place were under threat and had to find adaptions. This is something that could be prepared for better in the future. 

Implication: For people who receive care packages that enable them to live at home, these plans should include ‘emergency planning’ for widespread future events that might cause shortages of supplies, or lack of available personnel. If there are further lockdowns, letters with information and instructions should be provided sooner if possible. 

  1. Older people are concerned for other people, not just themselves, and this impacts on loneliness. 

There has been some ageist talk about older people’s isolation and vulnerability during the pandemic, but it is important to remember that older people are vital members of social groupings consisting of families, friends, and neighbourhoods. Despite some initial feelings of shock, most participants said they were able to calm themselves down and adjust emotionally to the lockdown. About half of the participants said they felt lonely or isolated in these early weeks, although some noted that this was normal for them as they were already isolated, due to medical or living situations. However, in addition to loneliness these participants expressed concern about their families and their ability to support others – for example concern about their adult children’s employment and family circumstances. The participants talked about the pandemic limiting their ability to provide care, emotional support, and voluntary and paid work. The one carer we interviewed felt very isolated because she had to learn how to do personal care on her own. 

Implication: The impacts of the ‘new normal’ on loneliness are entwined with disruptions to older people’s ability to provide care, support, and work for others. Tasks that make them feel useful may help. 

  1. Difficulty planning for the future. 

Again, like many of us, most of the participants said they do not know what to expect in the near or distant future, and indeed said they were trying not to make plans. This uncertainty was in some cases unsettling, but for others accepting uncertainty was part of their coping strategy for the moment. However, the long-term prospect of lockdown or isolation restrictions was concerning to them. One of the causes for concern was about other people’s behaviour – such as other people breaking lockdown and distancing guidelines, thereby wasting all of the efforts so far. Some participants also worried that they will be left behind, once everyone else returns to their normal lives. 

Implications: Participants varied on their thoughts about the shape of the future of this pandemic. There is a clear need for further ongoing research that continues to understand the medium to long-term impacts of the pandemic, and this research needs to be responsive to future events. 

  1. Adoption of new technology has been championed by younger family members. 

Many of the participants had heard talk of Zoom – but few of them had tried it or any other new technology (with a couple of exceptions). For those who had tried a new video or social technology, it mainly came about through younger family members or members of their social clubs wanting to connect. In these cases, they reported it brightening up their days, although still not being the same as face-to-face gatherings. 

Implication: People should continue encouraging and helping their older relatives, friends, and neighbours to get on-board with digital technology that helps them socially connect and organise their routines (e.g. shopping). 

  1. The importance of daily or weekly ‘highlights’. 

Several participants talked about how important it was to be able to have something to brighten up their day or week, such as an arranged video chat or meeting outside with someone. This could be family or friends, but also speaking to a professional/volunteer (e.g., GP, healthcare worker, volunteer befriender, or even their bank) could lift their moods if the interaction went well. Many talked about an initial rush of phone calls early on in lockdown, from younger family members or neighbours in particular, that then eased off as people went back to work. Some talked about these initial phone calls as being a bit overbearing or unusual. Others said that these social connections not only cheered them up but also motivated them to participate in other activities such as making things for other people. 

Implication: While it is important to stay in touch with people, try to make it consistent but ‘light-touch’ over time, as dropping out of contact can make people feel forgotten. Also remember that socialising is not just a joy in itself; it motivates people to be more active. 

These interviews and the implications we draw from them help demonstrate that we have to look to develop solutions for the short- medium- and long-term. Some of the experiences that have occurred can happen when other emergencies happen, health-related or otherwise, and we need to ensure that our support networks become more resilient in dealing with such events.