My husband was sitting with our cat in his lap and said, “Melli doesn’t want that you and I leave home for the weekend – she just told me so.” So, my husband got an explicit message from the cat, one that just happened to be perfectly in line with his own view. During this time of coronavirus restrictions, this is how things went.

Comments on older people’s corona quarantine were based on anecdotes or researchers’ educated guesses, because it is impossible to rapidly conduct a comprehensive study.

The period of corona restrictions brought up and highlighted discriminative attitudes towards older people, and the age limit of 70 years for applying quarantine-like conditions raised discussion. Nearly all 70-year-olds are in sufficiently good health, and only a few people at that age feel themselves to be old. Nowadays, 70-year-olds can be regarded as active middle-aged people, and by their looks, they are hard to distinguish from 50-year-olds. Yet, the articles dealing with this age group were often illustrated with images of wrinkled hands or rollator-supported legs.

Older people deserve to be pictured fully and in a dignified manner rather than being represented by a single feeble part of the body, which distorts our image of them.

For many years now, I have studied older people’s life spheres and how people stay active as they age. The corona quarantine was a particularly sharp blow to these aspects. In May 2020, the AGNES project collected information, in a very short window of time, using a mailed survey questionnaire. The questionnaire was targeted to people between the ages of 77 and 87. It addressed the mobility, life spheres, activeness, life quality, mental mood, and loneliness, as well as the comprehensibility and information sources of coronavirus-related communication. Our target population consisted of the participants of our study from two years earlier. In May 2020, our corona survey involved a total of 813 persons, that is, about 82% of the original population.

Our first observation was that the participants had a strong desire to talk about their situation. Second, they answered the questionnaire carefully.

Earlier, questionnaire surveys have not been recommended for research with older respondents, but this experience showed that answering was not difficult for them.

A tentative finding of our survey is that the worst-case scenario never actualised. Life spheres diminished while activity took on forms that could be pursued at home or near it. Many respondents said they performed yard work, home maintenance or outdoor activities on a jogging path. One nuisance was that physical exercising and other hobby groups were ceased. Unlike feared, we did not find any increase in loneliness in comparison to the situation two years earlier. For example, of the 87-year olds, 88% of men and 80% of women did not feel themselves lonely during the quarantine. The corresponding percentages two years earlier were 90% and 92%. A few respondents did report that they missed their grandchildren. Most respondents had spent the quarantine at home with their spouse and some left for their summer cottage.

During the period of coronavirus measures, there was an interesting debate going on about whether the restrictions and recommendations were too tight or too loose. Public health experts use the concept of acceptable risk. When considering acceptable risks, we need to take into account at least health-related, political, economic, social, and technical aspects as well as legislation. A recommendation based on an estimation of acceptable risk is always a compromise between striving for an optimal safety level and limiting the negative effects of the safety measures. In Finland, for instance, the home quarantine for people older than 70 emphasised maximal safety. Later, possible negative consequences of home quarantine as well as other aspects were brought up.

In the spring, we managed to contain the spread of the coronavirus in Finland, and there was no increase in mortality rates for any age groups. The end result of the home quarantine seems to be that the large-scale spread of COVID-19 among older people was successfully avoided. The side effects of the home quarantine also appear to have been smaller than was feared.

One could say that it went quite well.

Taina Rantanen
Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences & Gerontology Research Center

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