Leeds over 60s Covid response: Plea to think about the older people in your life
The past year has presented all kinds of challenges, not least for older people in Leeds who have spent long periods shielding to reduce their chances of contracting Covid-19.
Feeling of loneliness and social isolation, worsening mental health and a decline in physical fitness will be familiar impacts of the pandemic to people of all ages.
But there was a growing unease that some viewed keeping older people shut away as an acceptable solution, even when others were able to get back to something like normality.
It is just one of the reasons why Leeds Older People's Forum (LOPF) chief executive Rachel Cooper thinks the decision taken in September to set up a city-wide operational group focused on over 60s during the pandemic was a crucial one.
"I felt quite frustrated up until that point," she said. "I think because of ageism, older people weren’t really considered in society with the same value that they should have been.
"Older people are not all the same, some will have had a really difficult experience through all this so it really gave us an opportunity to get people together in the same space that could try and make sure the resources got out to organisations and we could work through some of the issues."
Heading up the operational group is Lucy Jackson, a public health consultant with Leeds City Council.
She said: "At the time, in late summer, we hoped we might have more of a gap before another wave. It was about how do we start having some wellbeing conversations, other kinds of support they might need. Then the numbers started to rise as we went into September. That was when we really started off the bronze group for over 60s.
"We knew from the first wave that by far the majority of people who died and were in hospital were over 60. We’ve had the most positive cases in the 18 to 44-year-olds but when you look at hospitalisations, it clearly shifts to the over 60s - and 90 per cent of deaths have been over 65 years old."
In the event of a second wave, the focus was to be on how to help people reduce physical contact but also maintain mobility.
Dr Lesley Freeman is a GP at Oulton Medical Centre, clinical director for the Primary Care Network serving LS25 and LS26, and clinical lead for frailty at Leeds Clinical Commissioning Group.
"We're seeing people who were already suffering with anxiety or depression worsening, but also people with new episodes," she said. "There’s loss and bereavement, the impact Covid has had across whole families."
On the easing of lockdown restrictions allowing people to get out more, she added: "There’s a concern people might not be physically able, particularly in the older age groups. There’s a risk they’re not going to be as mobile, an increased risk of falls and, of course, levels of frailty due to physically not being as active. It’s massive, across the spectrum."
The operations group was led by the city's public health team with health services, third sector bodies, social care and housing teams all contributing.
Ms Jackson said: "How we started was trying to understand what was happening. We had lot of looking at the hard data, but at the same time three times in the last year we’ve really gathered what older people and the people who support them were saying."
This is where LOPF's member organisations were able to provide valuable insight.
Ms Cooper said: "Those organisations on the ground have been hit quite hard through people dying. Older people make up around 95 per cent of those deaths and they wouldn’t have died otherwise at that point. Their relatives and their families had time that they would have been able to spend with them.
"It’s hit our member organisations very hard, the staff and the older people within the organisations. I was talking to one organisation that said they usually average at 12 deaths per year and they stopped counting at 23. It conveys quite a message."
The operations group used funding made available for the pandemic response to fund the expansion of work being done with older people by grassroots organisations.
Ms Jackson said: "We gave them extra funding so they could have extra capacity to do much more door-knocking, to do some welfare packs, wellbeing phone calls, more befriending. Sometimes you could actually go out and take somebody for a walk, other times it was much more a phonecall."
Funds were also directed to Age UK's Swift service for people aged 50 and over, as well as organisations like Carers Leeds.
And the group's work is far from over with the vaccination programme continuing, more steps to come in the roadmap out of lockdown and the longer term impacts to consider.
"The impact of people being called vulnerable for a year does colour their self-perception," Ms Cooper said. "We would just call on people to think about the older people in their lives. They do bring value, whether it’s parents or grandparents who give that emotional support.
"It’s really important we value older people and bring them back into the community. Many of them will be returning to volunteering opportunities in the city. They do contribute a lot."
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