Use social distancing as an opportunity to extend empathy and consideration to older people and especially those living in residential care, writes Matthew Tieu.

As we come to terms with the need to socially distance and accept this as a new norm that may last several months or more, we will inevitably reflect on what has become of both our personal and professional lives.

For some, it will be a temporary and necessary inconvenience, which they’ll be able to adapt to and overcome with appropriate resources and support on hand. However, the current situation does not bode well for many others, especially those who have already lost their jobs or have had to shut down their businesses.

They and many others now face great uncertainty about their futures and their livelihoods.

Matthew Tieu

In addition to concerns about the economic stress that they will be under, there are also concerns about their mental health.

The impact of social distancing measures will lead to weakening social connections, loneliness, and isolation, creating new mental health challenges and exacerbating existing ones.

Thus, there will be many people facing both an economic and psychosocial struggle.

While it is important to stay hopeful and work towards overcoming this current crisis, we must also take lessons from it and adapt accordingly.

One of those lessons is understanding the purpose of social distancing and the consequences of not heeding social distancing measures.

Another is to understand and address the psychosocial impact of social distancing more generally, something that many older people in our community have experienced well before the current situation, particularly those in need of care or living in residential care facilities.

For this particularly vulnerable and marginalised group of people, social distancing is virtually a normal part of their life, and though we may all agree that this is a regrettable situation, it seems there is very little we as society are doing about it.

There are a couple of things about the COVID-19 situation that exemplify and amplify how little consideration or thought we give to older people.

Take the recent panic buying and hoarding of essentials like toilet paper, sanitizer and food. In doing so, not only are we demonstrating how individualistic and selfish our mindset is, we are also showing how ignorant we are towards others in our community.

Older people are among some of the most at risk and vulnerable to serious illness or death from COVID-19. Many cannot simply jump into a car and drive from supermarket to supermarket searching for and lugging bulk packs of toilet paper. That is precisely why care support workers are employed to help older people shop for groceries and essentials, among other things.

Social distancing is intended to decrease transmission rates and prevent the spread of disease in the population. It is primarily a measure to protect those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19. This includes older people in our community, those with pre-existing conditions that make them more susceptible to the disease, and frontline health care workers.

It is also a measure aimed at ensuring our current health services, which are already under strain, are able to cope with the anticipated influx of infected patients who will need specialist care, and in some cases, life-saving treatment.

In all of our fear, panic and ignorance, sparked by the media frenzy and ad hoc announcements and measures by our Prime Minister, we’ve failed as a society to grasp the true purpose of social distancing. Such a failure is closely linked to a failure to give due consideration to others in the community.

Despite our own struggles, we must use the experience of social distancing as an opportunity to extend empathy and consideration to older people in our community, especially those in need of care, or those living in residential care facilities.

We need to remind ourselves that they are among some of the most vulnerable and marginalised in our society, for whom living at a social distance or in social isolation from the community has become a norm.

It is a norm that arises from the moral distance we’ve created between those who can look after themselves and contribute to the economy, and those who cannot. It underpins the devaluing of older people and the systemic ageism they face.

The current challenge of COVID-19 highlights the importance of having a collectivist mindset rather than an individualistic one. Not just for grasping the purpose of social isolation as a response to a pandemic, but to ensure that vulnerable members of our community are not marginalised and resigned to a life of economic and psychosocial struggle.

Matthew Tieu is a recent PhD Graduate from Flinders University.

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