COVID-19 shutdown has had drastic consequences for many seniors, says P.E.I. geriatrician


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A P.E.I. geriatrician says many older adults have suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic in ways from which they may not be able to recover. 

Dr. Martha Carmichael, the province’s only internist geriatrician, says the health of many seniors living at home or in long-term care has declined. 

“I can’t sugar-coat this even if I tried,” she told Island Morning‘s Mitch Cormier. “The reality is that we’re seeing seniors and families in crisis — in the community, in their own homes, and also in facility-based care. We’re seeing huge changes, unfortunately, in cognition, function, mood, behaviour.” 

Carmichael said it’s difficult to accurately measure the impact of isolation and loneliness, but she feels some older Islanders have died at least in part because of the pandemic restrictions. 

“I do, I really do… And I think any front-line provider would probably say the same thing. We’ve seen a lot of unfortunate deaths.”

We’ve always known that humans are social creatures or social animals and that has never been more clear, I think, in our lifetimes.— Dr. Martha Carmichael

This is not a new theory.

“The impact of social isolation and loneliness on health and well-being is recognized globally as a public health issue,” noted a Statistics Canada article in June of this year. “The United Kingdom appointed a Ministerial lead on loneliness, and the World Health Organization recognizes the impact of social isolation on disability and death.”

Carmichael acknowledged that data linking specific P.E.I. deaths to the lack of social contact could not be easily gathered.

“It’s tough to catch those deaths, right? It’s tough to accurately measure the impact of isolation and loneliness.”

Steep decline for some

When the initial COVID-19 lockdown cut off seniors from family and friends, as well as many organized community support programs, that brought a level of social isolation that has been associated with a decline in memory and thinking, a physical decline due to less exercise, and changes in mood as well. 

Dr. Martha Carmichael, P.E.I.’s only internist geriatrician, says Island seniors have suffered physically, mentally and emotionally during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Dr. Martha Carmichael)

“It’s been huge,” Carmichael said. “We’ve always known that humans are social creatures or social animals and that has never been more clear, I think, in our lifetimes.”

She said it’s especially hard for those living with dementia, who saw “a more precipitous decline” when cut off from familiar faces and routine. 

“Social stimulation is one of the best things for our brain,” she noted. 

Carmichael said there was absolutely no doubt that the lockdown was needed back in March because so much was unknown about the spread of COVID-19 at that time, and long-term care homes were particularly vulnerable to infection. 

Dozens died in Ontario, B.C. and Quebec seniors’ homes last spring, and the military was brought in to several locations to supplement staffing as caregivers fell ill too. 

As time went on, though, Carmichael said people caring for seniors started to see “unintended consequences” of the lack of social interaction, and she said “it became clear that we needed to strike a bit of a better balance.”

Seniors in community suffered too

Seniors living in their own homes were not immune to deterioration either, as visits became few and far between and community events like card games, exercise classes and dances were cancelled. 

Lack of social contact, especially for dementia patients, has been linked to faster cognitive and physical decline. (BlurryMe/Shutterstock)

“Deconditioning is a physical process that happens to folks when they are just not up and around like they would have been previously,” Carmichael said. “Often people’s social activity was their physical activity as well.”

More sitting translated into people getting weaker, “and unfortunately that can result in falls,” she said. 

Now that restrictions have eased a bit, Carmichael said some older Islanders are experiencing some improvement. 

“Older adults are adaptable generally. They are survivors, they’ve been through things that often we can’t imagine, they are kind of getting through it. 

“On a positive side … I have seen families coming together to support loved ones like they never have before. There are a lot of people trying to help them get back their connectedness.”

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