Coronavirus: How elderly Kiwis are staying connected

They are our parents, our grandparents and our great-grandparents. Our much-loved elders, who as they move beyond the sixth decade of life still have many years of potential left.

But as the world grapples with a novel pandemic - carried into New Zealand by mostly young travellers - it is their lives most at risk. 

It was in this context, one week before lockdown, when retired university lecturer Allison Oosterman's children told her to go into isolation. 

And while she was a bit "miffed" at finding herself in the at-risk age group, the former journalism lecturer says she understands. 

"Seventy-year-olds often think they are 60-year-olds... but I mean they had to make a decision on an age. And I think that's acceptable," she told Newshub Nation. 

Her children were not prepared to take any chances despite her good health and high spirits - and issued her a lockdown order, days before the Government's nationwide one.

Today Oosterman's groceries come via a drive-by drop-off, social connection is virtual and exercise is done in-house.  It is not all plain sailing; seeing her grandchildren on a screen is an imperfect substitute for the real thing.

And she does worry - albeit less about herself and more for her children and their children. 

"But generally, I know that I am in a privileged position because I have got a home, I have got good health. There are a hell of a lot of people who are not in that position and I worry for them." 

The latest figures from Statistics NZ show there were 527,870 people aged over 70 years in June last year. Today an estimated 160,000 in the 70+ age bracket are estimated to be living alone. 

Around 2 percent of those aged over 75 report feeling lonely most or all of the time; around 10 percent lonely some of the time. 

As we age, our emotional health affects our physical health - something Auckland psychiatrist Dr Gary Cheung is warning of during this pandemic. 

"Feeling lonely is indeed a risk factor for mortality. People die early if they suffer from loneliness," he says.

"This is a risk factor that is more significant than risk factors like obesity, smoking or diabetes." 

During a national emergency and lockdown, the risk of loneliness is high. And so, Dr Cheung is urging the younger generation to keep an eye out for their elders. 

However, without the current national lockdown, the forecasts for New Zealand's elderly would be dire. Ministry of Health figures show the worst case scenario - assuming an undetected spread since the start of March - would see almost 70 percent of our population fall ill with the disease. 

Of those, 27,600 would likely die - more than the number who died in World War I. Eighty-nine percent of those would be people over 60. 

At 75, Robert Va'ai is not just in the at-risk age group, but he is also undergoing treatment for a long term medical condition. His wife, Fai, who is 73, still needs to go out into the community daily - as a caregiver - to people aged over 80. 

Her work is essential. So when the family hears of people flouting the rules, there is a sense of frustration.

Daughter Vaimoana Va'ai is calling on those not abiding by the lockdown requirements to do their part. 

"Our main concern was like his immune system. Like, it is not the same level as everyone else." 

The Va'ai family are determined to make the best of the situation as they hunker down in their Glendene home. Of course there are things they miss, the busy patter of young feet is one that Robert Va'ai says is now notably absent.  

"I miss my grandchildren. I miss them the most because, you know, they're very much part of our lives," he says.

"They were virtually here every day of the week, which is something that I and the wife thoroughly enjoy. Because once they're gone, it's quite quiet."

However, with five living under the same roof 24/7, any quietness is short-lived. 

Vaimoana Va'ai is a school teacher. Her two girls teach dance. Where once their working day took place elsewhere, now everything has shifted online. 

Every space on the property is now a valuable resource. But in this more confined space she says the family has also found new ways to reconnect with each other.

"I guess for me [the positive] is just having these two at home because they were always out and about," she says.

"Just to even see their faces, it was like, wow, okay, that's pretty cool. We get to spend some time together."

But not everyone gets to live with their loved ones during a pandemic. 

GM Nursing and Clinical Strategy at Oceania Healthcare Dr Frances Hughes said residents did miss their usual outings and visits from their loved ones - but they were doing their best to adapt. 

"Every elderly person's an individual. And some of them will find it more lonely. And we are addressing that by knowing our people really well and keeping them safe."  

Terry is a resident at Oceania's Meadowbank Retirement village, where he moved to with his wife a few years back. What worries him the most about the virus is not the impact it will have on him, but his daughters, and his grandchildren - those he will one day leave behind.

"I am concerned about the rest of the world, but not for myself, but this generation, but for the next generation and our grandchildren."