Image of Rose Anne Kenny, M.D.; Photo credit: GlBH
Rose Anne Kenny, M.D.; Photo credit: GlBH

New survey results from Ireland shed light not only on the challenges posed for older adults by the pandemic, but on their hopes, determination — and one of their pet peeves.

Similar to stay-at-home orders issued by many U.S. states, older adults and immunocompromised people in Ireland were asked to “cocoon” in the early months of the pandemic. In March 2020, they were told not to leave their homes for any reason, including shopping for food. In a survey conducted between July and October 2020, researchers at the Irish Longitudinal Study on Aging, or TILDA, documented the variety of struggles and coping strategies relayed by more than 4,000 respondents aged 60 and older. 

Their report, “In Their Own Words: The Voices of Older Irish People in the COVID-19 Pandemic” found that many participants were deeply affected by the restrictions, describing heightened feelings of loneliness and isolation, and a lost sense of dignity.

Word ‘cocooning’ a sore spot

Notably, participants frequently commented on their dislike of the word cocooning, heard regularly in the media to describe their situation. The survey revealed respondents’ frustration at feeling neglected and disregarded by the media or public health commentators, said Rose Anne Kenny, of Trinity College Dublin.

“Indeed, the case is strong for our society to review our attitudes to aging and be alert to covert ageism in how we address or represent older people,” said Kenny, who is the principal investigator of TILDA, Ireland’s largest population study.

“What, for example, are the implications of a ‘cocooning’ policy for those it affects? The covert message may be that the over-70s have less worth than others in society and therefore can be excluded from active participation, despite strong evidence to the contrary from TILDA and many other studies,” she said.

Not only did many elders lose loved ones due to COVID-19 and face separation from family and friends, but ageism in the media and some government policy initiatives took its toll on overall health and wellbeing, Kenny and colleagues reported. 

Hope and optimism

But survey respondents also recounted positive thoughts for the future, said Mark Ward, senior research fellow at TILDA and lead author of the report. In fact, 55% referred to hope and optimism when asked what they most looked forward to. And 20% indicated a capacity to cope or demonstrated resilience to pandemic challenges.

Many said that they had developed new skills and hobbies or used the events of lockdown to engage with new activities, Ward reported. And a number of study participants said that they looked forward to a more just society emerging from the pandemic troubles.

The advent of COVID-19 vaccines also has sparked brighter outlooks, Ward added.

“Sixteen months on from the emergence of COVID-19 in Ireland, the negative consequences of the crisis and subsequent impact on the health and wellbeing of older adults is clear. However, thanks to the successful rollout and uptake of the COVID-19 vaccination program, hope and optimism are now returning to the lives of older adults,” he concluded.

In Ireland, adults aged 70 and older have accounted for 93% of COVID-19 deaths.