Seniors in Singapore are highly at risk of dying from complications arising from COVID-19 infection despite the country having among the lowest mortality rates globally.
According to figures released by the Ministry of Health up to 19 April, at least 39 people aged 80 or older have tested positive for the virus. Eight have died — making up over half of the 14 COVID-19-related deaths Singapore has recorded so far.
Additionally, all of the deaths comprised seniors aged 64 to 95.
Seniors in nursing homes and welfare homes face heightened risk due to the communal setting of their living quarters, which has led to the formation of a cluster at Acacia Home in Admiralty.
Fifteen cases are traced to the cluster comprising 13 residents and two staff members.
Why are seniors more vulnerable to COVID-19 illness?
A geriatrician at Age-Link Specialist Clinic for Older Persons warned that seniors are at risk of developing severe complications from COVID-19 if infected.
Dr Sitoh Yih Yiow told The Straits Times that the risk may stem from factors such as having a weaker immune system compared to healthy young people, and a higher prevalence of having multiple chronic conditions such as heart disease and chronic obstructive lung disease, among others.
“Older persons tend to have diminished physiological reserves, meaning they are less able to accommodate stressors to the body and, hence, succumb more easily,” he explained.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said that the elderly accounts for 22 per cent of global COVID-19 deaths.
In Europe, the Geneva-based institution stated that more than 95 per cent of COVID-19 deaths involve people older than 60.
Singapore’s efforts to help the aged population amid the outbreak
Singapore has imposed circuit breaker measures since early April in a bid to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.
While gatherings outside family members living in the same household are generally prohibited, exceptions may be made for people who are required to take care of elderly family members living in another household while still practicing physical distancing.
Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee told Parliament on 6 April that the Silver Generation Office has reached the vulnerable elderly to communicate COVID-19 mitigation efforts such as hygiene tips and physical distancing.
“Since last month, Silver Generation Ambassadors have started visiting these seniors in their homes to communicate COVID-19 precautionary measures, such as hygiene tips and social distancing,” the minister said earlier this month.
Mr Lee added that his department has identified seniors who need special assistance and tried to link them with appropriate services.
Non-government organizations offering support to the aged population are also taking part in helping the vulnerable to cope with the quarantine period.
Lions Befrienders, for example, took measures to temporarily halt social activities at its centres in February, affecting over 6,000 seniors from their network.
“Even though it may impact the seniors’ social interaction, it is a necessary move to protect them,” Lions Befrienders said.
To replace physical interaction with seniors at risk of social isolation during the circuit breaker period, Lions Befrienders’ staff members and volunteers will call in to check in on the seniors’ wellbeing.
Lions Befrienders will limit home visits — brief ones — to seniors deemed to be medium- or high-risk such as those who are home-bound, act as senior caregivers, cases involving abuse, or those who are suicidal.
The organisation added that equipping vulnerable seniors with basic technological tools such as mobile phones and wireless internet can do wonders in helping them live an independent and empowered life.
Despite recording the highest COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia with over 15,000 confirmed cases in total so far, Singapore’s mortality rate is among the world’s lowest, at 0.1 per cent.
Singapore’s mortality rate is lower than that of Malaysia at 1.7 per cent and South Korea at 2.3 per cent.