To stay or not to stay at home? The unintended consequences of public health advice for older adults in the context of Covid-19 and urban heat

Stay-at-home advice is one of the most widespread public health solutions to various health risks, including Covid-19 and heat stress. Authorities often direct this recommendation to adults above 65 years old, a group particularly vulnerable to multiple risks. While this advice aims to save lives, when prolonged it also comes with various negative unintended consequences. It increases older adults’ isolation and loneliness, which negatively affects their mental and physical health, as well as their wellbeing and quality of life.

This article builds on the findings from two European projects that studied, respectively, Covid-19 responses and adaptation to urban heat. First, we analyze the data from semi-structured interviews about Covid-19 responses and their consequences conducted with local experts in Vienna, Austria, in 2021–22. Second, we analyze the data from focus groups on experiencing and adapting to urban heat conducted with older adults in Warsaw, Poland, in 2021.

This article demonstrates why stay-at-home advice might be problematic for older adults who live alone and how it leads to their increased isolation and loneliness when it stops being a short-term measure and becomes a prolonged experience. We examine differences and similarities between the two cases to discuss the shortcomings in care for older and frail people. We argue that public health recommendations should consider the issues of temporality, sociality and inequality when re-implementing the stay-at-home advice in the future. We also demonstrate that measures focusing on community wellbeing, instead of thinking only in terms of individual health and responsibility, might be a way to address those issues.

You can access the article here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S027795362400282X

To cite: Zofia Boni, Diotima Bertel, Viktoria Adler (2024) «To stay or not to stay at home? The unintended consequences of public health advice for older adults in the context of Covid-19 and urban heat», Social Science & Medicine, Volume 348, 116838, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2024.116838.