An unappreciated long term pandemic health effect? Increased frailty among older adults.

Some of the universal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the prolonged lockdown, lifting in practically all of the US and starting to lift in the UK, is weight gain (‘pandemic pounds’), a changed perception of ‘maintenance’, and in some, a certain reluctance to get back to what was normal life. We are reading that younger workers are reluctant to leave 100 percent remote work and go back to offices at all. Even older workers want to limit in-office time to once or twice a week, having lived free of brutal commutes. Anti-social has become fashionable, based on a simple search of t-shirts for sale (!).

But for the older adult battling to keep engaged and mobile, the toll of prolonged ‘sheltering in place’ has been far greater and less reversible, if at all. A thought piece in Kaiser Health News found that “Large numbers of older adults have become physically and cognitively debilitated and less able to care for themselves during 15 months of sheltering in place.” This includes older adults who did–and did not–have COVID-19.

Doctors are seeing combinations of:

  •  Weight gain–and weight loss due to lack of interest in eating, not eating or hydrating well
  • Depression from lack of contact with family and the outside world
  • Cognitive difficulties
  • Physical deconditioning, leading to severe lack of mobility and falls. Lack of activity leads to muscle mass loss of up to 20 percent in as little as five days.
  • Exacerbation of chronic illnesses such as diabetes, congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

For those in assisted living, a comeback is made even more difficult with restrictions still in place. Many have deteriorated so much that rehabilitative therapies do little good. The rest of the article describes rehabilitative outreach to those living at home, ranging from in-home physical therapy, to combinations of phone/video/in-home outreach, peer advocates, and encouraging older adults to go see their doctors in person. A follow-up article gives tips for older adults to reemerge in the post-pandemic world, with an emphasis on slowly increasing physical activity, reestablishing routines and social contacts, plus minding one’s diet.