Older Australians' fears about COVID 'perfectly reasonable'

It has taken Christine Banks many years, but drawing on her “grit and determination” and undergoing therapy has enabled her to counter the effects of conditions she suffers, such as PTSD and depression.

She is 61 and has been triple-vaccinated against COVID-19 but she still fears what catching the virus could do to her health, particularly if she contracted long COVID.

“After working so hard to get to the point where I’m actually living again, even if in my own small way, the idea I might be plunged back into chronic fatigue or suffer from other debilitating symptoms is a scary one,” she said.

When the Omicron wave raged in January, Ms Banks and her partner went into a self-imposed lockdown — something many other Australians did too, creating a phenomenon dubbed a ‘shadow lockdown’.

The Melbourne resident is more active now, but still wears an N95 mask, socially distances and considers the quality of air ventilation wherever she goes.

“If someone could tell me definitively that I wouldn’t end up with long COVID, I’d feel much less concerned about contracting COVID,” Ms Banks said.

“But no-one can. And so the risk seems a big one and I’m continuing to be vigilant and trying to protect myself from infection.”

Despite the protection of vaccines, COVID-19 still does pose a greater risk to the wellbeing of older people and Ms Banks is not alone in grappling with how to navigate that risk in the pandemic’s third year.

Caution among older Australians ‘perfectly reasonable’

The disproportionate effect COVID-19 has had on older people is clear in the data, with the highest number of deaths in Australia occurring in those aged between 80 to 89.

Since the pandemic began, 5026 deaths have been recorded and 3911 of those deaths have been among people aged in their 70s, 80s and 90s.

St Vincent’s Hospital’s head of geriatric medicine Richard Kane said both age alone and underlying conditions more common in older people heightened the risk of serious illness or death from COVID.

A man wearing a suit and tie.
St Vincent’s Hospital’s head of geriatric medicine Richard Kane.(Supplied)

“They can have medical issues that make them more susceptible to infection and severe illness in particular,” he said.

“Some of that relates to the physiology of the ageing process that affects all older people or people as they age.

“Some of that relates to the pre-existing chronic medical conditions that are more common in older people like dementia, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer that can make them more susceptible to severe infection as well.”

Dr Kane said the protection provided by booster vaccine doses and regular rapid antigen testing for school children were helping reduce risks for older people to return to activities they had to stop during lockdowns, like taking care of grandchildren.

He said in many ways older people had the “most to gain” from being boosted.

Dr Kane said older people were beginning to “dip their toes” back into socialising with varying degrees of concern and confidence.

“It’s perfectly reasonable to have a degree of caution as people reintegrate,” he said.

“For so long, we’ve been so cautious about our approach to COVID and potentially being exposed to it.”

In Ms Banks’s case, her concern that pre-existing health conditions put her at greater risk of getting seriously ill if she does contract the virus plays on her mind.

She also worries about her relatives who have health conditions such as having undergone organ transplants, heart issues and diabetes.

“It sometimes seems like people with increased risk factors are collateral damage in the rush to open up in the face of a high level of virus in the community,” she said.

Call for older people to ‘maintain enthusiasm’ for vaccination

RMIT University immunologist Kylie Quinn said data was still emerging about how three COVID-19 vaccine doses protected different age groups against Omicron.

“If you’ve received that third dose of vaccine, the ballpark [figure] for Omicron is sitting about 65 per cent protection against symptomatic disease,” she said.

“When you’re talking about hospitalisation … early after that third dose it’s up in the 90s, the [percentage] of protection against Omicron.”

Three syringes with orange tips in a blue tray.
Experts say booster COVID-19 doses provide essential protection for older Australians. (ABC News: Keane Bourke)

Dr Quinn said older people had led the way with vaccination in Australia and said she hoped older people “maintain that enthusiasm” with any subsequent doses, including the booster.

“They really went out and took care of their own health with the first few doses and it’s really important that they do that with the booster as well,” she said.

Ann Thomas and her husband, aged in their 60s and 70s respectively, are trying to work out how to balance risk as restrictions in Victoria largely wind back.

The couple lives in the Dandenong Ranges just outside Melbourne.

Ms Thomas has multiple underlying conditions and has not yet had her booster dose but is planning to get it in the next week or so, and her husband has been boosted.

A portrait of a woman with hoop earrings, glasses and a brightly coloured scarf.
Ann Thomas, aged in her 60s, is worried about the heightened risk COVID-19 poses to her. (Supplied)

She said while returning to parts of the lifestyle she enjoyed prior to the pandemic, she had to decide what her priorities were.

“What I have navigated is, ‘What hill am I willing to die on?’,” she said.

“That hill is my children and grandchildren.

“So I will take calculated risks to see them and do things with them, but I won’t go back to large parties or movie theatres, or social gatherings that involve a lot of people in a closed-in space.”

Ms Thomas, who is originally from the United States, said the situation over there, where many more older people had died from COVID-19, made her more hesitant.

“Seeing the funerals that have happened among people in my age group over there, and among my friends over there, seeing the hospitalisations that have happened, I’m not that keen to run out and go back to life as it was,” she said

“I’m more willing to see how it plays out and adapt that way.”

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Written by ABC News