Exploring the impact of lockdown on older adults' mental health
Whilst the last year and a half has been stressful for us all, it’s clear that it has had a disproportionate impact on the mental wellbeing of people who were already disadvantaged before the pandemic struck. It's time to address these inequalities.
In this blog, Alison Giles, our Associate Director for Healthy Ageing, examines how the pandemic has impacted the mental wellbeing of people aged 50-70.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020, we have had to adjust to a very different way of life. Almost overnight our normal freedoms were taken away. Workplaces, cafes, restaurants, pubs and other social venues were closed, and we weren’t allowed to meet up with family or friends beyond our immediate household, let alone hug them. Whilst for some this forced change of pace was welcome and gave time to reflect on what really matters, for many it created stress and anxiety about issues such as health, financial security and housing, and increased feelings of boredom, loneliness and isolation.
At the Centre for Ageing Better, we are interested in adults in mid-life (aged 50-70) and how we can ensure that they enter later life in good health with financial security, good housing and strong social connections. As the pandemic continued and the mitigation strategies became more stringent, we started to ask what the mental health impacts would be for this group, many of whom would be juggling employment with caring and homeschooling responsibilities. We ran a survey among adults aged 50-70 in summer 2020 to try to answer this.
More than a third (36%) of our survey respondents told us that their mental health had deteriorated as a result of the pandemic. Individuals living alone were more likely to say that their mental health had suffered during lockdown (43% versus 36% overall) with increased feelings of stress and anxiety.
Personal health was a pressing concern for those with a pre-existing health condition and those shielding due to their own or a family members’ health. And lockdown caused additional pressure and stress for people providing unpaid care to people they lived with, with the closure of day centres and other support services leaving them isolated, unable to access help with their caring responsibilities and at times negatively affecting their relationships.
As the nation starts to recover, we must ensure that we seize the opportunity to help the most impacted to radically improve their life circumstances, build their resilience and improve their chances of a good later life.
Other issues causing stress and anxiety included employment and finances, particularly among those who had been furloughed and felt they lacked any kind of job security and did not know whether their job would be there for them once lockdown ended. Those who were already out of work were concerned about the future job market. Whilst many who were working from home could describe the benefits to their mental health, some respondents described how they just weren’t enjoying their jobs as much since they had to do them remotely. They missed their colleagues and customers and stated that they felt flat without this interaction.
Having to spend significant amounts of time at home and indoors created added stress for many. Two-fifths of respondents to our survey stated that their home had at least one issue with some of the biggest problems being noise from a neighbour (14%), or having a shortage of space (13%) – a figure which rose to one in five (22%) among those living in London. What’s more, people who rent their property were twice as likely as homeowners to be dissatisfied with the size of their home (11% versus 6%), the neighbourhood in which they live (8% versus 4%) and also their access to green space (8% versus 3%). Three in ten of those who rent do not have access to a garden (31%) compared to only 6% of those who own their home.
Our survey found that many adults adopted unhealthy behaviours during the pandemic, with a third of respondents reporting they had been smoking more (36%) and around three in ten (32%) drinking more. From our qualitative work, these changes in habits seemed to be partly in response to anxiety. Three in ten (29%) also said they had been eating more unhealthy food during this time and many spoke about eating to alleviate the boredom they felt during lockdown.
The experience of people approaching later life in lockdown: The impact of COVID-19 on 50-70-year olds in England
Whilst we would probably all say that the pandemic has been stressful, it’s clear that it has had a disproportionate impact on the mental wellbeing of people who were already disadvantaged before the pandemic struck. As the nation starts to recover, we must ensure that we seize the opportunity to help the most impacted to radically improve their life circumstances, build their resilience and improve their chances of a good later life.
This means putting in place strategies to improve the social determinants of mental wellbeing. Regarding employment, unpaid carers need flexibility and support at work to continue to manage the often-stressful balance between work and care. We welcome the government's confirmation it will implement a right to carer's leave though we would like it to be paid. Flexible working should be available to people from day one and the government's new proposals to make it easier for people to access flexible working options including a day one right to make a request are really positive
It’s also important that no one’s housing is causing them unnecessary stress and anxiety. The pandemic has added a new layer of understanding of the profound effect that non-decent housing can have our mental wellbeing. We’re calling for to a cross-government housing strategy with a ministerial champion to tackle the issues with our homes.
Finally, with the launch of the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities this month, we need an unflinching focus on creating the environments to support the adoption of healthier behaviours among those older adults most at risk. And we need to ensure services to support smoking cessation, weight loss and the adoption of healthy behaviours are routinely offered to all older adults who could benefit, that they are accessible and culturally appropriate, and that they are tailored to meet this cohort’s needs and preferences.
At the Centre for Ageing Better we're determined to address these causes of stress and anxiety in older adults. Let’s make sure that your housing, employment or caring duties doesn’t determine the state of your mental wellbeing.