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Pandemics, age and ageing: What has changed and what will?

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On the occasion of International Day of Older Persons, Meena Ganesh, Co-Founder, MD, and Chairperson, Portea Medical talks about the impact of COVID on senior citizens

India has over 100 million senior citizens (as per the last census), and the actual number might be as high has 200 million in the next census. The number of older persons globally is projected to double to 1.5 billion in 2050. While this was in itself a call for action for building a more resilient society, the COVID-19 pandemic came as an alarm bell of sorts. Apart from other changes and inducing a new normal, the pandemic underscored how the elderly needed care in the comfort of their homes.

During the early days of the pandemic, the WHO identified the elderly as being at risk. It has thus been an eyeopener into how ageism is intrinsic to our culture, society, institutions, and most of all, how we collectively respond to a crisis like this. A case in point is healthcare and the access to it. COVID-19 led to a scarcity in resources, as an outcome of which older people lacked access to intensive treatment. Many elderly were confined inside – be it at home or in institutional care settings. There is thus a need to look at home monitoring for senior citizens as an integral aspect of caring for this growing population since there are two segments requiring: those with supportive care needs and those who need certain services, someone to run their errands, companionship and even engagement. The question that arises here is, will the pandemic change our perspective towards ageing ?

A structured, multidisciplinary model is the way forward. There is a need to revisit decisions, learn our lessons, and ensure that in case of another pandemic, the elderly become an intrinsic part of the policy-making process. Adequate support services that help in attainment of de facto equality for the older persons needing medical and social care is another aspect. Public-private partnerships that bring home healthcare bodies into the ambit representing older persons, can ensure quality care for them. Although the pandemic has been devastating beyond measure, it should also be seen as an opportunity – to transform how we address age, ageism and the resultant actions.

Care and support are fundamental rights and putting in place such systems that actively promote independence and help people live ably as a community as they age are the need of the hour as well. These systems can further be adapted in case of future pandemics or other contingencies. Such a community-based system will also enable better monitoring and resource allocation as well as quality care and support services including training and better working conditions for caregivers. This will put the choice of where and whom to live with, in the hands of the elderly.

Elderly cannot be pushed into the observer position in times of a health crisis. Care and empathy when they are unable to do things and enabling them to contribute in ways they can when they are healthy is imperative. There is a need for policies towards promoting social justice and fundamental rights. Last but not the least, the very portrayal of old age in both politics and media must change. This will ensure that the diversity of older people is better reflected and has a positive influence on their image and future generations. Old age is not a bane; it is a golden time and one, that needs to be celebrated, cared for, and acknowledged.

 In conclusion

With many societies continuing to age and an increase in the number of elderly, there will be a need to invest in our future differently. The first step towards this is to strengthen the healthcare capacity with home healthcare as an integral cog in the wheel. It is also imperative to ensure a steady supply of equipment including intensive-care beds, ventilators, and other essential things. Second is the outlook of policymakers towards improving how the populations in their countries grow older. After all, age matters not just chronologically but also in terms of the health conditions that accompany. All these efforts will be instrumental in minimizing the costs of future pandemics. The future society will need to be empowering, accessible, and inclusive where people can grow old without stigma or isolation. Building a more inclusive and age-friendly society will require a tad bit more – it can happen when we listen to advice, suggestions, and voices of the elderly themselves.

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