Covid foists another pandemic on seniors: loneliness

By Dang Khoa, Long NguyenSeptember 19, 2021 | 04:53 pm PT
The Covid-19 restrictions have exacerbated loneliness among old people, who are unable to meet their friends or have lost loved ones.

Nguyen Thi Kim, 83, who lives with her daughter’s family in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh District, usually gets up at 5 a.m. and exercises with her senior friends at a park nearby before walking to a local market to buy groceries for the day.

But now due to the pandemic and semi-lockdown in the capital, she has no choice but to go to the rooftop where she waters plants before having breakfast by 7 a.m., while her children and grandchildren are still sleeping.

"Sometimes I have nothing to do and am too bored and again fall asleep," she says.

During the day, when other family members are busy with studies and work, she has no one to talk to.

"I do not want to interrupt them, I want to hang out with my friends."

During the months of staying at home and safe from the virus, she has not only missed the friends with whom she exercises, but also the casual acquaintances and people she runs into at the market, in the alley and the pagoda she used to go to.

While it is admittedly vital that seniors with underlying medical conditions stay at home – Kim has diabetes -- to flatten the pandemic curve, it has become hard for elderly people to bear because they cannot connect with their family members and friends.

A man is vaccinated against the coronavirus in HCMCs Thu Duc City, July 22, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Ha An

A man is vaccinated against the coronavirus in HCMC's Thu Duc City, July 22, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Ha An

Nguyen Huu Hung lives with his son’s four-member family in HCMC’s District 8, but spends most of his time watching TV on the first floor while the others are usually in their room, busy with their work or studying.

"I try to cope with loneliness by watching TV or reading books, but I really miss speaking with my friends," he says.

Before the outbreak the 70-year-old would go to the park to exercise or play chess with his friends at a nearby coffee shop, reminiscing about the past or talking about health issues and their trips.

Now, to kill time, Hung often cleans the house and takes care of the plants in the rooftop garden. His son chides him sometimes, telling him to take it easy and let the grandchildren do the chores.

"But I hate sitting and doing nothing all day. Not seeing friends and venturing out is torture."

And the situation is even grimmer for those not living with their family and cannot visit anyone due to travel restrictions.

According to the General Office for Population and Family Planning under the Ministry of Health, around 72 percent live with their children but nuclear families are a growing trend, meaning more and more older people are not living with their children.

Nguyen Thi Hoa of HCMC’s Go Vap District says: "My daughter lives in Binh Thanh District, but she has not visited me for four months because of this lockdown; I miss her and my grandson a lot."

She takes care of her husband, who has dementia, and spends most of the time cooking, talking to her dogs and watering plants in the balconies.

Their ability to keep up with technology worsens the frustration for many seniors.

Nguyen Thi Loan, 68, was given an iPad by her children and taught how to make video calls to her relatives and friends.

But in a few days she forgot how to use the device and had to ask for assistance from her children and grandchildren, who quickly began to lose patience.

She says wistfully: "It is stressful to learn how to use it. I am not familiar with touch screens, and I do not want to disturb the kids whenever I want to talk to my relatives."

She adds she feels outdated because of her digital illiteracy.

Kim concurs, saying: "Using those modern devices makes me realize that I am so lonely that she needs to talk with a screen.

"People do not do that at my age. I want to see my friends and talk to them in person, not via a small screen."

In July a study by the U.K.’s Lancaster University found that staying in touch with friends and family via technology made many older people feel lonelier, according to The Guardian.

A woman on Hanois Thuoc Bac Street (R) picks up food brought by her children as the city sets up multiple Covid-19 checkpoints in the downtown area to enforce the tougher social distancing measures, August 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

A woman on Hanoi's Thuoc Bac Street (R) picks up food brought by her children as the city sets up multiple Covid-19 checkpoints in the downtown area to enforce the tougher social distancing measures, August 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

Covid has also sparked an epidemic of despair among seniors, many of whom have seen people of their age or loved ones pass away but were unable to say their final goodbyes properly.

Kim lost her husband last year and three friends with whom she often hung out earlier this year.

She says with a sigh: "My husband died during the social distancing campaign in April 2020, and so we could not hold a decent funeral for him. With the three friends, I could not attend their funerals because of this lockdown."

Something had to give, and it has.

Now many old people have begun to venture out to exercise or hang out with friends, no longer able to put up with being cooped at home.

A 72-year-old man, who asked not to be identified, is walking with his friend around the West Lake in Hanoi. He says: "I must go out and talk to my friends. We all wear masks."

It has been noticeable in fact that in the last few weeks many older people in the capital have hit the streets to exercise, ignoring social distancing rules that have been applied in many localities of the country for months.

With the ramping up of vaccination and more provinces and cities relaxing their restrictions, they hope things soon return to normalcy and they can resume their social interactions soon.

Kim says: "I hope I can survive this pandemic and go to my husband’s hometown to visit his siblings in Quang Nam Province before I die. This prolonged pandemic is exhausting."

She says she has been fully vaccinated but her children still keep her at home, fearful she could still contract the virus.

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