Ita Buttrose
Ita Buttrose

Ita’s plea: ‘Don’t let pandemic panic steal your vision’

There's no doubt Australians heeded the message that they needed to socially isolate if we were to slow down the spread of COVID-19 successfully - which we have.

However, it seems some Australians have taken the message not to leave home too literally.

Consequently, many older Australians have been skipping important medical treatments because they are fearful of contracting coronavirus and many people who need urgent, sight-saving eye injections for diseases like wet age-related macular degeneration and diabetic macular edema are putting their vision at risk.

It's understandable that some people might have genuine concerns about leaving their home to be treated, but clinics are safe, sterile environments and stringent guidelines are in place.

Ophthalmologists around Australia are extremely concerned that an increasing number of patients are cancelling scheduled eye appointments.

Ita Buttrose with her Uncle Gerald, 96, who receives regular eye injections for his wet age-related macular degeneration. Picture: Supplied
Ita Buttrose with her Uncle Gerald, 96, who receives regular eye injections for his wet age-related macular degeneration. Picture: Supplied

Such treatments are considered essential and anyone who needs them is permitted to leave their homes, including those who live in aged care facilities, to see their ophthalmologist. It is not a breach of Government guidelines to do this. Carers are permitted to accompany an older person if necessary.

I know first-hand how devastating vision loss can be. I've been patron of the Macular Disease Foundation for 15 years and macular degeneration runs in my family.

My father lost his vision from the disease, but the vision of his youngest brother, my Uncle Gerald, was saved because he was able to receive sight-saving injections.

Now 96, and in isolation with his wife at home, he had his regular eye injection last week (he has had more than 100) and he emailed me to say that his vision is as good as ever.

No one should ever take their sight for granted. Any person with any kind of macular condition or anyone who notices any sudden changes in their vision should contact their ophthalmologist or optometrist as soon as possible.

Another consequence of social isolation has been the affect it has had on older people's mental wellbeing. Our way of life changed practically overnight. It has been a sudden and difficult adjustment for everyone. Most older Australians have been separated from their families, including their grandchildren.

While the health risks of coronavirus are higher for older Australians, some have taken lock down literally and avoided vital medical appointments. Picture: iStock
While the health risks of coronavirus are higher for older Australians, some have taken lock down literally and avoided vital medical appointments. Picture: iStock

Many of these children used to be looked after by their grandparents regularly. Grandparents are the largest providers of childcare in Australia. Well, they were, until coronavirus.

They are also aware that COVID-19 has killed many older people. Not surprisingly some older Australians admit to feeling like endangered species.

Although COVID-19 restrictions about what Australians can and can't do are slowly being eased around the nation, people over 70 are still being encouraged to stay home.

Long-term social isolation is not good for an older person's wellbeing. Beyond Blue reports that between 10 to 15 per cent of older people experience depression and about 10 per cent experience anxiety. Depression among people living in residential aged care is thought to be around 35 per cent.

Mental health experts are predicting an increase in mental illness among Australians of all ages due the upheaval and uncertainty caused by coronavirus.

It's important, therefore, that older Australians are encouraged to stay connected with their friends and families.

There are many ways to communicate using social media - if they have Facebook for instance (many older people do) - it's an easy way to keep in touch with friends. Regular chats on the phone are a must and don't overlook the power of letter writing, something that older people used to do as a matter of course in years gone by. Receiving a newsy letter used to be a very happy occasion in the lives of many older men and women. It still would be for many of them today.

Recognising their fears and vulnerability, a new hotline for older people has been established by a number of leading aged care organisations and supported by the Federal Government to provide a one-stop source for support, questions and up-to-date COVID-19 guidelines.

Call 1800 171 866. This is an excellent initiative.

So while older Australians are urged to stay safe and stay at home, please do not let it come with the cost of ignoring other health issues.

Let's make sure we all see each other on the other side of COVID-19.

Ita Buttrose AC OBE is a patron of the Macular Disease Foundation Australia and is chair of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

For more information contact the Macular Disease Foundation on 1800 111 709 www.mdfoundation.com.au

Originally published as Ita's plea: 'Don't let pandemic panic steal your vision'


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