Red Cross COVID-19 study shows vulnerable seniors in need of more support

Topics: National
Ottawa | August 20, 2020

Results of their four-month COVID-19 study has prompted a call from the Canadian Red Cross for policies and practices that better serve the most vulnerable among Canada’s senior population – both during a pandemic and beyond.
The Red Cross study was conducted by Leger in four segments between April and July.  It tracked the social and psychological impacts of COVID-19 on more than 2,000 Canadians 18 years of age and older – with an emphasis on vulnerable seniors, defined as 65 years or older who are living alone and in fair or poor health. 
Findings highlighted long-standing challenges for vulnerable seniors that have further intensified during COVID-19.
Specifically, nearly one-third of vulnerable seniors consistently reported feeling they do not have people they could count on – and could not get help right away, if needed.  More than 30 per cent reported feeling lonely frequently or every day – nearly three times the rate of their healthier peers.  In addition, only 57 per cent reported feeling good about themselves, and just 50 per cent felt hopeful about the future.
“The results are disconcerting,” says Dr. Paul Hebert, Medical and Science Advisor for the Canadian Red Cross. “While staying at home can be a life-saving measure for older adults, we also know that social isolation and emotional disconnectedness are major health concerns.  They can worsen physical and emotional problems – particularly for the frail, who have far less ability to cope with even minor medical setbacks.”
Results of the final segment of the survey, conducted between July 22 and 28, added to Dr. Hebert’s concern as vulnerable seniors were the only segment to show increased feelings of anxiety, restlessness or uneasiness in the three days prior to the survey.  They were alone, too, in reporting a small month-to-month increase in feelings of sadness, depression or hopelessness.
“There is considerable research linking prolonged social isolation and loneliness to higher risks of physical and mental conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, cognitive decline and a weakened immune system,” says Dr. Hebert.  “In the near term, as the pandemic continues, we need to stay aware of the condition of seniors and other vulnerable people in our lives and be watchful of signs of their deterioration, such as anger, irritability, loss of appetite and weight, loss of interest in activities they normally enjoy, or changes in sleep habits. We also need to make sure they feel supported, with food in the fridge and are safe living in a hazard-free home.”
For the long term, Dr. Hebert says the primary takeaway of the study is that institutional and social support systems need to better serve vulnerable seniors in their homes during a pandemic – and beyond.
“COVID-19 has exposed flaws, but mostly it has illuminated long-standing issues regarding care for our aging population,” he says. “The sectors, systems and processes serving the vulnerable among Canada’s aging population are varied and complex, but right now there is also a strong common interest in collaborating and coordinating to pursue improvement.”
Dr. Hebert has witnessed that readiness first-hand through a Pan Canadian Social Collaborative that Red Cross recently established to seek innovative solutions to improve the health and well-being of older Canadians with vulnerabilities.
“The Mission of Red Cross is to improve the lives of vulnerable people by mobilizing the power of humanity in Canada and around the world,” he said.  “In that context, we felt it appropriate to engage with leaders within the medical, social, academic and research communities to pursue policies, and programs that address the needs of vulnerable groups and are based on sound evidence so that we improve the health of older Canadians and members of vulnerable sub-populations.”
Dr. Hebert says the initiative is only in its infancy, but he is encouraged by its early progress.  “The quality of participation and the commitment to overcome barriers is inspiring.  We would all like to be a part of getting this right.”
For a complete summary of the study and information about the Society’s service offerings in response to COVID-19, visit
About the Canadian Red Cross
Here in Canada and overseas, the Red Cross stands ready to help people before, during and after a disaster. As a member of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement – which is made up of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and 192 national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies – the Canadian Red Cross is dedicated to improving the lives of vulnerable people by mobilizing the power of humanity in Canada and throughout the world.
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