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Byron Shire
May 20, 2024

Seniors speak of lockdown angst

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‘The pandemic’s changed things forever.’ Alex Benham. Photo Jeff Dawson.

Mirembe Campbell with Mia Armitage

Spare a thought for our seniors in these so-called ‘unprecedented times’.

Global Health Ageing Research Professor, Bei Wu, at New York University, says mental health problems caused by isolation and loneliness are magnified for seniors and exacerbated by lockdowns and other restrictions.

Meanwhile, Professor of Geriatrics Lina Ma at Xuanwu Hospital says the mental health of seniors during the pandemic is particularly concerning, because research shows correlations between poor mental health and declining cognitive functioning, as well as increased risks for Alzheimer’s Disease.

We heard a lot about aged Australians when the pandemic was first declared nationally, for all the worst reasons: they were dying of COVID-19 in aged care.

But what’s it like when you’re a senior living in a regional community, under increasing travel restrictions and more recently, an extended lockdown?

COVID-19: a senior’s crash course in digital comms

Before the pandemic, governments were funding tech 101 classes for seniors to help them learn basics as email, social media, and how to set up a MyGov account.

Now, our seniors are expected to fill out border pass applications online, use QR codes on smartphones and in some cases, see a doctor via telehealth.

Bay FM Community Newsroom reporter Mirembe Campbell spoke to three Byron Shire seniors to find out how they were coping.

‘The pandemic’s changed things forever,’ retired Mullumbimby Primary School Principal, volunteer firefighter and theatre enthusiast Alex Benham said.

Mr Benham has lived in the Byron Shire for 35 years, and said he used to have meetups after golfing tournaments where he’d have a drink and chat.

‘But that hasn’t happened for two years, and theatre is non-existent,’ Mr Benham said. 

Michael Borenstein. Photo Jeff Dawson.

President of Drill Hall Theatre Company, Michael Borenstein, has lived in the Shire for 40 years, and said he was used to organising numerous social events, including a local dance group called ‘Old Men Dancing’.

Mr Borenstein said the effects of COVID-19 were ‘especially frightening’ for seniors with underlying medical conditions, but for everyone it’s about ‘isolation and the impacts on mental health’.

Recently retired Byron Community Centre’s Seniors Program Co-ordinator, Pippy Wardell, has lived in the shire for 15 years and agreed social activities were important for senior mental health.

‘Seniors in Byron Shire are mostly very active; they’re professionals who’ve been very successful and moved up here when downsizing from cities, or they’re here to live better and be more creative’, Ms Wardell said.

‘Lockdowns and other restrictions feel absolutely atrocious’, she said, ‘I know some seniors are staying indoors trembling with fear but most of us are in shock, no one knows what to do’.

Isolated from family

‘The worst thing for seniors is isolation, especially not being able to see children and grandchildren.’ Pippy Wardell. Photo Jeff Dawson

‘The worst thing for seniors is isolation, especially not being able to see children and grandchildren’, Ms Wardell said, with Mr Borenstein proving her point by saying the most difficult thing for him was an inability to see his grandchildren.

‘It’s really affecting me’, Mr Borenstein said.

Mr Benham shared a similar lamentation.

‘It’s very hard, we’ve got a daughter in Melbourne and a son in Sydney, but we’ve not seen them for almost two years’, Mr Benham said, adding his sympathy for families separated by global travel restrictions.

‘People need to stop thinking they’re more important than everyone else, thinking they can do whatever they like’, Mr Benham said. ‘These recently extended lockdowns are causing more problems for everyone’.

Goverment led confusion

Professor Thespina Yemanis, of Global Health at American University School of International Service, says inconsistent, vague or unrealistic health messaging from governments creates confusion.

Confusion has been an ongoing complaint in Australia’s pandemic, with the Byron Shire no exception.

Mr Borenstein accused the NSW government of having ‘too many loopholes’ in its recent travel restrictions for Sydneysiders.

‘They should have been in hard lockdown, when the virus was first detected’, Mr Borenstein said. ‘Look what happened recently with the person coming up from Sydney to ostensibly check out real-estate’.

Mr Benham and Ms Wardell both agreed.

‘They could have put checkpoints on the two roads out of Sydney coming North, but they didn’t’, Ms Wardell said. ‘They left us wide open, I’m disgusted and upset’.

As if worrying about health and social isolation wasn’t enough, financial stress was also impacting Byron’s seniors.

‘Lockdowns are exhausting my funds,’ Ms Wardell said, ‘many of us are afraid of losing our homes, not having enough to eat and not being able to survive’.

Mirembe Campbell and Mia Armitage are Bay FM members. To listen to the interviews, visit bayfm.org.au and look for Community Newsroom.

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  1. As a senior who is retired and prioritised for vaccination access I have to agree, Nerida. Lockdown is hard on everyone and different demographics will experience the hardship differently but not exclusively. But please be civil or we’ll start carrying on about wars and depressions and having to walk 20 miles to school barefoot!

    I have sympathy with many of my contemporaries who are absolutely challenged by online transaction but I think lots of the challenge comes from a preconceived belief that it will be beyond them and scary. Can I appeal to everyone, oldies included, to accept that being old doesn’t mean being stupid, doddery or unable to learn new skills and technologies. Such beliefs from whatever quarter are self perpetuating.

    I love the convenience and connectedness that technology gives me but it doesn’t compensate for not knowing in what decade I’m likely to see my grandchildren in Victoria again. They don’t sit still long enough to do FaceTime well.


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