Reflections on COVID-19; its impact on older people and inspiring words from Dr Mike Ryan

Traffic Medicine.

By Dr Diarmuid O'Shea, Registrar, RCPI

The month of October heralds St Luke’s Symposium, our annual conference.  This year, we started early with an inspirational talk from Dr Mike Ryan, Executive Director, WHO Health Emergencies Programme. Dr Ryan delivered the annual Irish Gerontological Society ALONE Willie Bermingham Lecture on October 1st, , International Day of Older Persons.  At the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, we felt delivering this event, in association with the IGS, was another way of demonstrating the potential we have when, in combination with our National Societies, our Institutes and Faculties collaborate to deliver on world class educational and professional events.  Our commitment to excellence is a given, our reach is truly international.

Never was the concept of intergenerational solidarity so important

We are all aware that COVID-19 has impacted on each and every one of us both personally and professionally. While it has been hard on many, it has been particularly hard on older people. Their voice has often not been heard or worse not sought, overlooked and indeed marginalised. In his talk entitled “Lessons from COVID-19 and how we can improve care and support for older people in our community”, Dr Ryan spoke about “not leaving anyone behind” and the importance of cross generational connections.

Given the risks for older people, and the risks for those who supported them during this pandemic, policy and programmatic interventions must be targeted towards raising awareness of their special needs. We must recognize that older persons contribute to their own health and wellbeing. They too, will have important roles to play in the preparedness and response phases of this and future pandemics. Never was the concept of intergenerational solidarity so important.

One size does not fit all

Older people comprise a growing and heterogeneous group ranging from the very fit to frail.  We must remember that a one size solution does not fit all and the focus on improvements must be cross sectoral and cross generational while keeping the voice of the older person at the centre of all we do.

With that in mind, Dr Ryan emphasised that we must learn the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic fast, not just for our economy, but for all of us. How we learn to live with this virus in the next few years will define us as a society.  Ireland is an island and we have the potential to be a beacon of light and a shining example to many countries around the world if we get our response to this pandemic right.

A roadmap to ageing well

Depending on the country you live in, between 2 and 10 % of older people live in institutional care – that means 90 to 98 % of older people live in their own homes and communities.  Given the major impact of COVID-19 on older people, it is vital that we focus and prioritise policies and strategies that can inform, advise and support how we age well into the future.  While being innovative ourselves, we should take our lead from organisations including the WHO and the United Nations.

The work being done by the HSE and RCPI through the national clinical programmes, and specifically the Older Persons Programme led by Dr Siobhan Kennelly, will play a key part along with SlainteCare.  Together with the Department of Health, they are laying down the road map for delivery of support and care with and to older people in our communities.  This road map must be more than a “Winter Plan”. Ageing, fortunately for us all, is here to stay!

Dr Ryan has said we must continue to “adapt, change, measure and implement”.  We have been doing this in RCPI over the years and in more recent times.  The evolution of the masterclass webinar series in COVID times and the emerging work with our national societies are examples of these progressive changes.

Does a pandemic change how we approach age and ageing?

The year 2020 marked the year COVID-19 hit Ireland and the world.  It is also the 30th anniversary of the International Day of Older Persons.   It is fitting that this year, International Day of Older Persons 2020, also spotlights the role of the health care workforce in contributing to the health and care of older persons.  In Ireland, and indeed around the world, we owe a great debt of gratitude to the selfless sacrifices, compassion, advocacy, leadership, but above all commitment to the cause our health care and other frontline workers have shown throughout this marathon.  To each and everyone of you, Thank You.

A tour de force - inspiring lecture from Dr Mike Ryan

We are very proud that the IGS and RCPI were able to have Dr Mike Ryan deliver the IGS ALONE Willie Bermingham Lecture on the International Day of the Older Person.  Dr Ryan’s talk really is worth listening to. It was a real “tour de force”, inspiring, informative and reenergizing all at the same time.  The Panel discussion that followed including among others former RCPI council member Patricia Rickard Clarke, Former Commissioner of the Law Reform Commission, Professor Cecily Kelliher who chaired the Nursing Home Advisory Panel, Mr Gabriel Mahklouf, Govenor of the Central Bank, Dr Colm Henry FRCPI and Chief Clinical Officer of the HSE, Sean Moynihan, CEO of ALONE and Dr Ronan Collins, RCPI Council member - shared their views and set the bar for what we can all do.  What better and more constructive way to reenergise and boost our response to this pandemic, to start progressing the other ageing challenges Ireland needs to meet, and to kick off our St Luke’s series of events.

The event also gave us an opportunity to recognize the wonderful work Dr Ryan has done and is doing around the world in shaping the response to managing the COVID-19 and other pandemics.  The privilege of listening to his insights into how we, as a country, can learn lessons from our collective experiences of battling COVID-19 and other pandemics, and improve how we deliver support and care to all of us as we age in Ireland will energize us in the months and years ahead.    We all owe a great debt of gratitude to Dr Ryan, a sincere thank you from us here at the RCPI, to him.  

Teamwork - we are in this together

Sam Bennett’s victory in Paris recently was an example of the importance of what an individual and a team can do together.  Team planning, preparation and perseverance along with endurance and individual effort can achieve many things if both stay focused and work together.  That is why our individual effort and adherence to the public health guidance at the moment is so important to our collective goal of surviving and thriving during these pandemic times. 

So, as we find ourselves heading into the winter months, I would like to thank you all for your continued commitment, dedication and hard work.  Stay safe, stay well, get the flu vaccine and follow our public health guidance and leaders – THANK YOU!

This is my second reflection on COVID-19. Read my first reflection here

Dr Diarmuid O’Shea


Dr Diarmuid O’Shea is the Registrar of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland. On taking up this role in 2014, he stepped down as Vice-President of Education and Professional Development, a role he held for 8 years.  He acted as the Masterclass Series Convenor in the RCPI since its inception in 2007.  He was National Specialty Director in Geriatric Medicine from 2000 – 2004. He is currently a Consultant Physician in Geriatric and General Medicine in St Vincent’s University Hospital, Dublin and is the current President of The Irish Gerontological Society of Ireland. A UCD medical graduate, he served as Chair of the Irish Committee on Higher Medical Training from 2017 to 2019. He stepped down from his role as Clinical Lead for the National Clinical Programme for Older People in May 2019.