Navigating the Uncharted: Older Adults & The Pandemic

Oct 01 2021. views 86

The Covid pandemic posed an unprecedented conundrum globally, and as countries struggled against the merciless onslaught of the pandemic, a particular demographic - older adults - found themselves almost in its direct line of fire; largely touted as the most vulnerable population and at risk of the virus, largely sidelined as younger individuals were given priority to receive healthcare, and most worryingly, offered limited support because many nations are lacking any infrastructure for their psychosocial support.

Sri Lanka, while still comparatively young, is aging fast. According to United Nations data, its share of those aged 65 years and above is set to increase from 7% to 21% (to 4.6 million) in just under 4 decades between 2007 to 2045; much faster than many other economies. Especially in the current climate, it is imperative that individual, organisational, and institutional strategies should be established to ensure that older adults are able to maintain social contacts, preserve family ties, and maintain the ability to give or receive help during the current pandemic and beyond. Nevertheless, the country is still ill-equipped to meet these continually evolving needs of the older adult population.

In their comprehensive review ‘Effects of COVID-19 Pandemic on Health and Wellbeing of Older People’ Lekamwasam and Lekamwasam noted that “when healthcare facilities are overburdened during the pandemic, it may not be possible to equally cater to all patients… Furthermore, older adults may be underrepresented in screening programmes owing to poor communication and restricted mobility”.

The covid pandemic drastically altered the wellbeing landscape of the general population, and numerous studies highlighted that older adults are known to experience loneliness, age discrimination, and excessive worry. Moreover, in their Rapid Review conducted early this year, Audrey Lebrasseur et al observed that the lack of in-person social interactions and decreased social lives has meant that many older adults face far worse, including presenting psychological symptoms, exacerbation of ageism, physical deterioration, and reduced quality of life. The researchers concluded that it is reasonable to anticipate that they would experience greater negative outcomes related to the COVID-19 pandemic given their increased isolation and risk for complications than younger adults.

The studies however posit that the mixed outcomes highlight that lived experiences cannot be pigeonholed considering the heterogeneity of the older adult demographic. In Sri Lanka, extended family systems are common, consisting of parents, their children, and grandparents, all living in the same household. This familial setup has meant that a number of older Sri Lankans have experienced a more positive circumstance during this tumultuous time. For Harsha and his wife Audrey, the pandemic has made them grateful for the constant presence of their children and grandchildren. “We are truly blessed. We are surrounded by love and support and we wouldn’t have had it any other way. This pandemic brought us all closer together and really showed us what’s important in life. But at the same time, we lost many family and friends to this virus and it was heartbreaking. It is difficult to live in a continuous bubble when reality hits so close to home. We do worry when our children head out, especially since as a doctor, our son is likely to be exposed to someone with the virus”. 

Not all older adults live with their children, instead, voluntarily choosing to live independent, self-sufficient lives. “I always liked my independence,” Pearl Dias shares. “After my husband passed, I was insistent that I will not be a burden to my children, so I opted to live alone with my help. I have never felt alone because I was constantly visited by my family and friends. But ever since the pandemic, this has changed. Although I am blessed because my help is wonderful, the pandemic has definitely taken a toll on my spirit. I used to go on my daily walks, visit my children and friends often, go to the pola and pick out vegetables. These are things I looked forward to, but because of the pandemic, I felt like I didn’t have much to be excited about”. Despite it all, Pearl adds that she tries to be positive and keep her mind occupied. Staying up to date was something she eventually began to avoid because she found the news to be upsetting and she constantly worried for her family, many of whom had to continue heading out to work due to being employed in essential services. “I find reasons to be thankful every day, that my family is safe, that I have wonderful neighbours who check on me. We are a resilient generation”, she adds resolutely. “We have been through a lot of hardship in our lives, but we have always persevered. We will weather this pandemic too” she adds with confidence.

In their mixed-methods analysis of stresses and joys in older adults’ experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brenda Whitehead and Emily Torossian found that social connections, distraction/keeping busy, and emotion-focused coping helped older adults alleviate excessive worries, highlighting that in the context of a stressor outside of individual control like COVID-19, resources that serve to address our own mindset or behaviour—rather than target the stressor itself—will be most effective at reducing distress. Ramya Weerakoon credits her positivity for keeping her in good spirits. “I made a conscious choice to maintain an attitude of gratitude, which helped me to be optimistic and have the right focus during this period,” she explained. “Knowing that my family, friends, and colleagues are safe and well by the grace of God, gave me hope. I am grateful for the opportunities I got, to empathise and encourage people who lost loved ones, livelihoods and were anxious about facing the future, which enabled me to appreciate the value of community. My success in new avenues of business strengthened my faith tremendously. Except for not being able to visit my Granddaughters & Church frequently, the pandemic has had no adverse effect on me”.

Pictured: Ramya Weerakoon

Without a doubt, the pandemic ‘represents a broad-scale stressor the universality of which has been rarely seen. The reality of physical threat, combined with the pandemic’s sudden onset, profound impact on daily life, and uncontrollability, is the formula for a “perfect storm” of stress reactivity. Combine these universal aspects with the added vulnerabilities faced by some older adults, such as preexisting isolation, mobility limitations, financial vulnerability, or elevated health risk, and the psychological impact of COVID-19 could be magnified’. For John, who lives with his wife, the pandemic has been quite the nightmare. “Our children work in the city but as a result of many salary cuts, we have had to fend for ourselves quite a bit. There is only so much we can expect of our children at this time as we don’t want to be unfair to them. There are days where we worry about where our next meal will come from, or what will happen if we get sick. Nowadays, even if we get a cold, we get stressed because we see in the news the condition of the covid victims in hospitals, and that too if they are lucky to get to one in the first place”. He adds that the mandated restrictions and the resultant confinements have been taking a toll on them both, and he does not dare to think what the next few months hold. 

Trevor Rajaratnam, who’s involved in the travel and tourism trade, believes in employing a pragmatic attitude to the circumstances, nevertheless, he notes that “the lockdowns in Sri Lanka have been an issue for quite a number of people. It all depends on where you come from. There are people who are the daily wage earners who have really struggled to bring food to their table, the responsibility of feeding their families, and a lot of hardships caused through that. There are different strata of people who have managed themselves well but I would reckon the majority of Sri Lankan citizens would have faced a challenge".

Pictured: Trevor Rajaratnam

"I take it one day at a time and I cope with it, me being in the travel industry. The travel and tourism industry was one of the hardest hit and it is still struggling to get things right. The way things are going globally, the inequalities taking place in the world, and where vaccines are concerned, there’s no vaccine equity, with countries mixing politics with vaccines. There are a lot of problems, but do we immerse ourselves in that or do we think ‘okay, this is what the situation is and this is what we need to do to cope with it’? The more you spend time thinking about things and worrying about it, the problem is going to loom much larger”.


Rihaab Mowlana

Journalist. Content Writer. Entrepreneur. Educator. You can follow Rihaab on Twitter & Instagram - @rihaabmowlana



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