Experiencing the lockdown in old age

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Author: Sophie Colas, PhD candidate in Sociology and Anthropology at University of Lille (France) and KU Leuven University (Belgium). Sophie can be reached at sophie.colas@kuleuven.be

Fieldsite: Paris and Hauts-de-France Regions, where Sophie Colas has been conducting research on elderly people and digital technology.

Let me relate a funny story to you. A friend of mine is 102 years old and do you know what? She has a new boyfriend! He is a bit younger than she is but yeah! And it’s not even platonic! Last week she told me: “I scored with him”! So you see…” The mischievous 86-year-old Geneviève doesn’t lack anecdotes. During our long conversations on the phone, she recounts to me her friends’ adventures or her childhood stories. She is one of the ladies I have been calling over the past weeks, giving me an insight into older adults life during quarantine time.

The Canal Saint-Martin, Paris

France stands among the most affected countries by Covid19 in Europe. To deal with the situation the government declared a state of emergency on March 17 imposing a severe lockdown: non-essential trips have been banned and in order to go outside, people are compelled to fill in a dated and signed permission form. Since then, the lockdown has been extended twice. In France, the lockdown is due to end on May 11. Nursing homes, their staff and residents have been particularly affected by the virus.

In this context, initiatives have flourished within the country to help most vulnerable people to cope with the crisis. Thereby, support networks have raised: people have offered to help those who could not leave their place at all by going grocery shopping for them or providing them with medicine. Some have offered to babysit their neighbours’ children while books and games exchanges have started between inhabitants of the same neighbourhoods. Some local companies have put their skills to good use making visor protective hats for supermarket cashiers, meantime civil associations have concentrated their activities on things related to Covid-19 such as supplying food, hygiene products and drugs to people in need. Authorities at the local level have also committed tremendously to help people, especially the most isolated. Special care has been given to elderly people.

A poster on a lift inside a building.
“Dear neighbours, due to the delicate situation we are in today (coronavirus), it appears absolutely necessary to help each other. Thus, if you are an elderly person and/or vulnerable and/or sick, I can go shopping for you. With all my solidarity”

Since the health crisis linked to the 2003 heatwave – which greatly affected the aged population – , mayors have been obliged to keep a record of the most vulnerable inhabitants in order to ensure their good health and provide them with adapted care. Thanks to those records, local authorities have been able to carry out massive phone calls with the help of municipal officers, civil organizations and mobilized citizens.

On this occasion, the municipality of Paris has refocused the activities of its digital social platform. The platform has always been dedicated to enhance the mobility of elderly inhabitants and to fight against their isolation, especially by facilitating meetings and gatherings. It is now solely devoted to organize phone-calls between senior and younger citizens. The platform appears as a phone application where volunteers can locate the elderly available and find some details regarding their age and the times when they prefer to be called. According to the municipality of Paris, the number of active volunteers on the platform has significantly increased since the beginning of the outbreak (more than 5000 calls). This extraordinary rise shows the growing concern of Parisians for the elderly in this period of time. Using the app, I have been calling several elderly people a day for the last few weeks.

“Person’s name, 89 years old, walks with a cane
Best time to call: on Monday 11 May between 4 and 4:30 PM”

Older people are particularly affected by loneliness and social isolation for a variety of reasons such as leaving the workplace, the deaths of spouses and friends, the geographical distance of children, poor physical health, lack of transport or low adaptation of public spaces, financial difficulties and ageism. The pandemic situation we are currently living has enormously increased the risk of isolation among the elderly. Due to a lower usage and knowledge of digital technologies (which younger people would use to share a drink over Zoom/Skype) and fewer visits of home helpers, older adults are even more likely to feel socially isolated at the present time. The phone calls I have carried out over the last weeks have given us an overview of the way elderly people experience the lockdown.

For some elderly people, especially those dealing with health issues, the lockdown has triggered or exacerbated the fear of dying alone at home. Although staying home is the best way to avoid contamination, it may also result in an overwhelming feeling of loneliness which is not easy to handle. Older adults know they are particularly exposed to the virus since it’s on everyone’s lips. They are also well aware that they won’t be the first to receive health care if hospitals end up running out of beds or ventilators. In addition to this, the situation in nursing homes has recently received much media attention showing the mishandling of the crisis. Some nursing homes are frowned upon for not having taken the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of the virus in their facilities resulting in a high number of coronavirus deaths that could have certainly been avoided. Until recently, the number of cases in nursing homes was not even taken into account, as if they were not important. But the fear of the disease is not the only burden, social isolation also is. Some elderly people find themselves in a very paradoxical situation, torn between the instructions to stay home as much as possible to avoid contamination and the fact that staying home cuts back drastically the number of social interactions which are essential to maintaining social participation and sense of belonging. In this context, phone-calls made to isolated elderly people come as a relief, ensuring connection to the outside and reassuring them.

On the phone Gislaine, 83 years old, told me the story of an old lady living in her building who died in her apartment a few years ago without people knowing it. She was found dead several weeks later after her neighbour had been alerted by the smell: “At least with these calls, we know we won’t end up like this”. Anxiety and feelings of loneliness that certain elderly people experience in this time of health crisis are amplified by avoidance practices in public space. In order to avoid contaminating them, many of us are keeping a distance from the elderly, trying not to get too close from them, giving them space to move around, etc. What is done with good intentions – and we all know how hard it is to deal with these new social distance practices –  is considered as hardly bearable for them. Ilana who just turned 93 years old, has only met few people since the beginning of the lockdown: “It feels like I am scaring them”.

Even though the lockdown measures are strictly the same for everyone, people are not all experiencing quarantine the same way. Some elderly people whom we contacted through the app expressed the fear of the virus, while others said they don’t feel particularly worried. Despite her health problems, Geneviève, 86 years old: “The doctor doesn’t want me to go out because you know, I have health issues. But the fear of the disease ?! I don’t have it at all, no. At the end of the lockdown, I will use a mask out of politeness. But, no, I am not afraid of being contaminated”. Some of our interlocutors have been able to obtain face masks thanks to their doctor or friends while others already had some in stock as a result of previous health issues. In any case, it doesn’t go without any complication: Anna, 91 years old: “I am tired of the mask! It blocks the nose! It moves! I think it’s not natural. And If you wear glasses! It fogs them up!”

Even though the lockdown can result in social isolation for many elderly people, it does not necessarily mean they get bored. Anna (91): “Bored? Oh no, I never become bored. I read, I read a lot, I got behind on my readings and now I am catching up with that. I also like doing crosswords, I do watch movies to escape a little bit… I tidy the place up. The cleaning lady can’t come anymore so you know I have to clean things up myself”. The experience of quarantine is lived widely differently according to life trajectory. Françoise, 83 years old has been using a wheelchair for years due to polio disease and has been spending most of her time at home: “I don’t feel bored, I am used to staying home. Even before the pandemic, I was not used to going out much because I am dependent on the home helper to move. The problem is that because of the restriction of movement she is not able to come as much as she used to do. But staying home, I am okay with that”. In the same way, Geneviève (86): “You know I had tuberculosis when I was young. In my early twenties, I had to spend two years isolated from other people. Over those two years, I hardly saw my parents, I might have seen them for one hour and a half overall. So the lockdown does not bother me”.

On another note, each of the elderly people we had the chance to talk with, has developed small strategies to cope with the situation, such as filling days with phone-calls to their relatives or friends. Clemence, 89 years old: “My only distraction is my sister who lives in Toulouse (South of France). We call one another every morning”. Yassine, 77 years old: “My children call me several times a day, they are worried so they call me a lot” or Françoise (83): “An old friend and I call each other every evening. I beep him and he calls me back. I used to visit him a few years ago and spend some time in his place. Nowadays we call each other, it helps to pass the time”.

Listening to music or radio also helps to deal with social isolation. Rose, 86 years old plays on the radio every night: “From 10 pm to 1 am, I am listening to a show in which people just like you and me are talking about their lives, about problems they face, etc. It is nice to hear from them”. For the lady, listening to this radio show is a way to bring the world into her place, to maintain a relationship with the outside world. But listening to media too much can also have bad side effects. It may increase anxiety and some prefer to avoid it. “I can’t stay without radio. But it is like they’re repeating the same information over and over. I listen to the radio to fill the void but they never stop talking about the pandemic, so it becomes really distressing”.

Another way to cope with social isolation is to go out for a walk in a neighbourhood nearby. It has been reported that their walking set a tempo for the day. Clemence (89): “I go down the street and walk a bit, I live near the river, it’s really nice. I pay attention to change my outfit every day, I don’t want people to see me with the same clothes”. Implementing little things to facilitate social bonding despite the social distancing policy seems to help. Geneviève (86) has begun again going to the park down her building to meet two friends of her: “We sit each other at one bench of distance and we talk like this”; Yassine (77), Colette (93) and Anna (91) talk from the window to their neighbours.

Using this app to make phone-calls was a way I found to keep conducting my research about older adults and the Internet despite the current situation. Carrying out this remote ethnography has been really instructive and entertaining too. Over the phone we talked about travel experience, movies we liked and museums to go to when the lockdown is over.  Rose (86) and I even discussed what it’s like to grow white hair and we sang together! Those phone-calls have been a way for me to open a window on the elderly people lives during the quarantine time. To my great surprise, people have been really talkative over the phone. We have not especially tackled the subject of digital but this remote ethnography has already taught me something: the telephone, either analogue or digital, plays a great role in the elderly people lives. It maintains the connection with the outside, sets the tempo of everyday life and helps both interlocutors to cope with the current challenging time.