‘They are the forgotten part of society’ - concerns for region’s elderly

Some elderly and vulnerable people in Norfolk and Suffolk have been shielding since March, with litt

Some elderly and vulnerable people in Norfolk and Suffolk have been shielding since March, with little end in sight. Picture: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire - Credit: PA

With local lockdowns being reintroduced in parts of the north of England and coronavirus cases swiftly rising ahead of an anticipated second peak, people from all walks of life are bracing to endure more potential restrictions in the coming weeks and months.

Age Concern North Norfolk head of trustees Jennie Cummings-Knight. Picture: Amy Elizabeth Photograph

Age Concern North Norfolk head of trustees Jennie Cummings-Knight. Picture: Amy Elizabeth Photography - Credit: Archant

But there remains a large group of people who are more susceptible to the effects of Covid-19, the thousands of ‘shielders’ across Norfolk who have never really been able to come out of lockdown.

With cases rising fast once again, there are worries that keeping these people away from social interaction for another long period will lead to a “potential public health emergency”, according to Age UK director Caroline Abrahams.

The charity said Covid-19 has “hit the fast-forward button on ageing”, with a substantial group of people left “frightened, depressed and very much alone”.

It also claims many older people are finding life incredibly tough, with those already ill or living with long-term health conditions most likely to report challenges.

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And months of reduced exercise has led to muscle weakness and mobility problems, while cognitive decline is believed to have been exacerbated by isolation.

This was echoed by Jennie Cummings-Knight, chair of trustees at Age Concern North Norfolk, which gained Dementia Friendly status in November 2018 and has worked hard to help people experiencing loneliness and isolation.

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She said: “Social interaction is one of the best things you can do to avoid dementia getting worse, especially in its early stages, so lockdown in March was absolutely the worst thing for those people at that time.

“They were a forgotten part of the population. It just wasn’t considered what it would mean for them – they go downhill a lot faster without it.”

Last month Age Concern restarted some of their in-person services, but staff and volunteers are unable to plan ahead with guidance changing at regular intervals.

Mrs Cummings-Knight added: “We were finally able to reopen our in-house lunches on September 22, with all the precautions of course. Up to nine people are able to come at a time with all the social distancing and cleaning measures in place.

“It’s up to people to make their own decisions of whether they want to socialise, but there are so many who have missed the contact outside their homes so it’s great for them.

“But it’s incredibly difficult to plan ahead. We have to play it by ear and adapt to when people can and are willing to do more things outside their homes.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “We know the huge impact this pandemic is having on many older people, and we remain committed to supporting those at higher risk, including prioritising them for testing and doing everything possible to support the clinically extremely vulnerable in order to protect their health.

“NHS services have adapted to remain open throughout this time so those most in need continue to receive high quality care and we also provided £10.2m to national and local mental health charities to support those affected.”

These charities have been on the front lines of the pandemic in Norfolk and Suffolk, supporting as many people as possible and providing services to the vulnerable and elderly.

Jo Reeder from Age UK Suffolk has spoken of the difficulty of identifying isolated people, especially when they have no family or access to the internet.

“There are people who don’t have family or neighbours they can rely on. It’s about making sure people can find out what support is available, and the message to check on your neighbours is so important,” she said.

And across the border, the Norfolk Community Foundation backed 70 front line charities with more than £1m of urgent aid to help fund their work during a time when they were unable to fundraise for themselves.

But more of these efforts are likely to be required over the next few months, with the county’s director of public health Dr Louise Smith warning that Norfolk is in the early stages of a steep rise in coronavirus cases, despite not currently being as badly affected as some other parts of the country.

Despite the prognosis, Age UK said it hopes the Government will resist “ageist siren calls” to shut older people away.

It’s tough to stay optimistic’

All elderly people have been forced to be extra careful this year, as they fall into the group of those most at risk of being affected more than most by the coronavirus.

But some who already have pulmonary diseases are even more vulnerable to the virus’ effects, and so have had to take even more extreme measures to protect themselves.

Mrs Dyer, who lives near Lowestoft, suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and has received treatment for lung cancer in the last two years.

Since March, she has only left her home for important health matters like hospital appointments.

The 76-year-old has her partner and her two dogs for company, but being “stuck in the same four walls” is tough for her.

“Because everything is changing and we have no idea when it will end, it’s tough to stay optimistic,” she said.

“It’s just more of the same.”

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