Cocooning from coronavirus: Lack of detail causes concern for some elderly

Advocacy groups angry at lack of information on how extreme isolation might work

Kay Walshe would have no problem "cocooning" during the coronavirus pandemic.

It is the older friends of the 71-year-old Kilkenny woman who are living remotely that she is more worried about. She is ready if Taoiseach Leo Varadkar eventually asks the elderly and people with long-term illness to stay at home for several weeks to protect themselves from Covid-19.

“If he comes out and says we have to stay in our house, we will. If you cannot stay in your own house, where can you stay? We won’t die for lack of company. We have our phones and we have our computers. It is only a temporary thing to stop everything,” said Walshe.

Two days before Mother’s Day, Walshe’s daughter Valerie continues to provide an essential service. Kay has imposed her own extreme form of self-isolation: she has not left the house for a week, relying on her daughter, always wearing a protective mask, to drop in supplies.


The first thing Walshe thought about when the nation first heard the word “cocooning” after Varadkar mentioned it in his address to the nation was that he did not mean people like her. She is healthy and active in the community.

But if asked by the Government, she will make her self-imposed quarantine official to protect herself and people her age from the virus. “You have to do what you are told. You are not the exception.”

Older friends

She is one of the youngest in her active retirement group in her home town of Ballyragget. She worries about how her older friends will cope, including a 94-year-old – "one of our best bridge players" – who still drives herself around and does her own shopping.

“I hope we don’t get it. We will do everything we can not to get it,” she said.

Varadkar gave little away in his 11-minute speech about what “cocooning” would exactly involve, apart from saying the Government was “putting in place the systems to ensure” that they will “have food, supplies and are checked on”.

He told the country the measure would “save many lives, particularly the most vulnerable, the most precious in our society”.

The lack of operational detail on how such drastic steps will work, particularly in remote, rural areas, has unsettled many people in the age bracket Varadkar was addressing.

People aged 65 and over accounted for 19 per cent of the population, or almost 640,000 people, according to the 2016 census. Almost 40 per cent of people living alone were that age.

"There were a lot of people who heard cocooning for the very first time in the Taoiseach's speech," said Peter Kavanagh, spokesman for Age Retirement Ireland. "It put shivers up people's spines because they don't know what it is and people are sort of leaping to conclusions."

Several groups representing the interests of older people participated in a conference call with the HSE on Thursday, but the health service could shed no further light on the plan.


Flagging the measure in a landmark speech without elaborating caused anger.

Paddy Connolly, chief executive of Age Action, felt it should be the job of public health officials, not a speechwriter, to make significant public announcements that affect so many.

“It would be helpful if they used clear language and relied on public health information and advice, and on less-tangential terms that people don’t understand,” he said.

In the vacuum of information, advocacy groups fear the social media mill of rumour around what cocooning might involve and how the large numbers of people affected will be managed.

“The last thing you want is to be sort of shutting too many people into house arrest, more people than you need to,” said Kavanagh.

His bigger concern is that the services are not there to support cocooning, given that online shopping delivery services are overwhelmed and people in rural areas do not have adequate broadband to communicate with loved ones so as to avoid the ravages of social isolation.

“There is a massive job to be done on the whole infrastructure side before we can look at effective self-isolation or ‘cocooning’ that does not affect people’s wellbeing and health,” said Kavanagh. “We are a long way from that. It is a worrying prospect.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times