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Source: Massey University

Health psychologists want to find out more about how older New Zealanders coped during the pandemic lockdown and if they experienced ongoing issues (photo/Unsplash:Kai Pilger)

Researchers from the Health and Ageing Research Team (HART) at Massey’s School of Psychology aim to develop a pandemic response and recovery framework supporting equity for older people (aged over 55), on the basis of surveys conducted this year and next. 

The team has just been awarded $996,615 as part of the Health Research Council’s $6.3 million in funding announced yesterday. The grants are for 11 new research studies across tertiary, health and community organisations, designed to help ensure equitable health and wellbeing outcomes for all New Zealanders during the recovery from COVID-19 and future infectious disease threats.

The framework for the Massey study will utilise longitudinal data from over 4,000 older New Zealanders (37 per cent Māori) who have participated in the Health, Work and Retirement longitudinal study across 15 years. The 2020 survey wave included items on participants’ experiences during the COVID-19 outbreak. 

A 12-month follow-up survey in 2021 – made possible through the HRC funding – will assess ongoing effects on wellbeing in a variety of domains to ascertain the effects of older people’s experiences of government direction, work and volunteering, isolation, and ageism for different demographic groups. Specific attention will be given to the experiences of Pākehā, Māori, Pasifika, and Asian groups. The results will be used to develop a targeted response framework to be disseminated to all relevant government and non-government stakeholders.

Researchers say older people are unequally vulnerable to health effects of the current pandemic, and that the project will provide a public health response and recovery framework to support people aged over 55 during infectious disease threats in Aotearoa. 

Project leader Professor Christine Stephens says her team will follow up this year’s survey with another in June 2021 by going back to the same people with a briefer survey to ask how the experiences have affected their wellbeing in various ways in 2021. The 2020 survey (which came out just after lockdown) asked them about their experiences during lockdown while it was fresh in their minds. A number of people had lost their jobs, or had changed the way they looked after their parents or spouses. 

“We are interested in how it plays out over time a year later, and to see what the actual long-term effects are,” says Professor Stephens. 

The HART team was prompted to bid for funding when the HRC asked for research on equity responses to pandemics. 

“In terms of this equity response, we argued that older people get more affected simply because the COVID-19 virus is more dangerous for older people – they’re the ones that had to lockdown more seriously,” she says.

“We also wanted to emphasises that older people are very diverse; for example there are poor older people and rich older people and they have diverse experiences. We also have large proportion of older people over 65 who still work, as well as the different effects in terms of aspects of life such as ethnicity or housing.”

Loneliness amplified by lockdown for some

Preliminary analysis of reponses to the 2020 survey revealed concern about loneliness and how it worsened during lockdown. However, this was in part mitigated by the government response and the targeted care for older people. “Many said they felt pretty well looked after, but it was the essential workers, the people whose spouses and other loved ones were in nursing homes that really suffered,” says Professor Stephens.

Those who lived alone wrote comments in the survey such as; “I’m used to living alone, but during lockdown I got more attention than ever, it was fine.” 

They also felt very protected and reassured by broad level of support through daily updates from the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield.

Researchers to find out more about “the forgotten people” 

“We need to look more closely what happened to working people, and people who are caregiving. There were people who were in lockdown with their dementing spouse who found it very hard. And older people also in lockdown with grandchildren.”

The highest proportion of people giving care are older people who are either looking after dependent children, spouses with health issues, disabled children, their parents, or grandchildren.

“There’s a lot of caregiving going on and that’s possibly where a lot of attention should be given more strongly and we’re going to ask about this in more detail.” 

The survey goes out in June 2021 and data will be collected up until November. 

Questions to be answered by the responses to the 2020 and  2021 surveys include:

  • What are the immediate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and response on the physical, mental, social and economic wellbeing of older people? 
  • How do profiles of vulnerability and resilience reflect demographic and psychosocial factors such as age, gender, socioeconomic status, employment status, caring status, housing quality, and ethnicity?
  • What are the one-year impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the physical, mental social and economic wellbeing of these groups?
  • What factors (e.g. government assistance, subjective experiences of lock-down, resilience profiles) mediate the relationship between immediate and one-year impacts on wellbeing outcomes?

Read more on the HRC’s latest grants here.