Pandemic lockdowns led to depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts among the elderly, the COVID-19 Inquiry heard on Thursday.
Caroline Abrahams, director of Age UK, told the inquiry that the charity had to offer new training for some of its helpline staff on “how to cope with people who are ringing up in great distress,” and “that only happened during and after the pandemic.”
The lockdowns “undoubtedly exacted a toll on many older people,” she said.
“That anxiety, and also ... a great loss of confidence, coupled with the fact that if you stay still and you don’t move around so much, as an older person, then you stiffen up and your muscles tend to waste and then it’s physically very, very difficult to be able to get around,” Ms. Abrahams said.
She told the inquiry that old people had been frightened to go out. Some also cancelled care services to avoid infection, particularly when there was a shortage of personal protective equipment at the beginning of the pandemic.
The access to medical care and other services were also interrupted, leading to a lack of treatment or the over-medication of patients.
In one case, a woman who had severe back pain couldn’t access support from her regular GP. She eventually found that her spine had been fractured in four places after being misdiagnosed by a doctor who checked her in her garden, and had no in-person follow up after the X-ray.
Earlier during the pandemic, when “there were lots of people very, very sick and dying in some care homes,” staff weren’t able to access palliative care, which Ms. Abrahams said had been “very patchy” even before the pandemic.
Whats more, because memory clinics and other activities that dementia patients may normally attend were no longer functioning, care home residents with dementia “either had the doses of their medication increased or were put on medication otherwise they wouldn’t have been on [sic], with some quite serious side effects.”
“One’s heart goes out to carers and families who found they were ... There was no one to call for help, and they were with somebody who was profoundly unwell for long periods of time,” Ms. Abrahams said, adding that Age UK had no doubt it would have led “to neglect, to abuse, to enormous distress for carers and also for people being cared for.”
Government Response ‘Deeply Inadequate’Ms. Abrahams told the inquiry that she believes the government’s response to the so-called first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic was “deeply inadequate.”
Within the first few weeks of the pandemic, Age UK knew what a lockdown would do to elderly people in care homes, she told the inquiry. However, there was “a complete misunderstanding” of what was happening on the government’s part during the first lockdown.
“At least 80 percent of people in care homes have dementia, and very often physical health problems as well. So these were very, very vulnerable people,” Ms. Abrahams said.
“And many care homes didn’t have enough staff, even at the beginning of the pandemic. Even before anyone got sick, they were covering with agency staff who were in and out.
“So we could see what was likely to happen, and yet it seemed to take a long time for policymakers to respond to that reality.”
Ms. Abrahams said the charity’s usual dialogue with the government had “largely stopped,” leaving them communicating their advice “through the national media” for two or three months.
She said things “very much” improved after the government appointed Sir David Pearson to “essentially sort out their response to social care,” and he became “the bridge that had been so obviously lacking.”