Merryn Gott: seeking letters from lockdown to tell a story

Professor Merryn Gott and a team of researchers are investigating how the lockdown affected older people, and would love them to write her letters.

Professor Merryn Gott from the School of Nursing and Te Ārai Research Group.
Professor Merryn Gott from the School of Nursing and Te Ārai Research Group. Photos: Elise Manahan

One pernicious idea mainstream society seems to latch onto, even before the Covid-19 lockdown, is that over 70s are incapable of making their own good decisions and therefore need to be  protected.

True, the over 70s were the group most vulnerable to Covid-19 and ended up being the hardest hit by the virus, but almost all of those who died had underlying health conditions.

So what else is going on?

Professor Merryn Gott, from the School of Nursing, is leading a team from Te Ārai Research Group who recently won funding to look at the impact of Covid-19 and lockdown on those aged 70-plus.

The year-long study, Social Connectedness Among Older People During Covid-19, funded by the Auckland Medical Research Foundation, will consider whether the voices of those 70 plus are heard or even represented in decisions about their well-being.

“The over 70s tended to be lumped together and collectively characterised as passive and vulnerable,” says Merryn.

“Te Ārai Research Group has a commitment to putting the voices of people most directly affected by experiences at the heart of public debate. What was really clear when we were reading through news reports and looking at the broadcast media, was that there was a lot said about older people, but very little actually reported that was said by them.”

The study will build on the team’s National Science Challenge funded study exploring social connection among culturally diverse older people. They will feed older people’s experiences and perspectives to government and other relevant organisations.

“We know that older people are making massive contributions to their communities and that was almost completely invisible in the rhetoric,” says Merryn.

“We are really interested in what the experience was actually like for older people themselves, across diverse cultural groups. Our previous work has found there’s a lot of heterogeneity ... we tend to lump them together as ‘the elderly’ or ‘old’ when in reality there’s a lot of variation.”

As part of the study, older people from across New Zealand will be invited to write letters recounting their experiences over lockdown. They can submit these via the project website ( or they can use traditional letter writing. There are also interviews being done by phone and video and these were begun earlier, while the situation was fresh in people’s minds. The plan is to partner with an archive to ensure their voices are kept for posterity as part of New Zealand’s social historical records. The letter-writing project will be open until the end of this year.

We’re putting a lot of effort into trying to get those voices we seldom hear.

Professor Merryn Gott, Te Ārai Research Group School of Nursing, University of Auckland

Professor Merryn Gott is hoping the letters she receives through will form a social archive.
Professor Merryn Gott is hoping the letters she receives through will form a social archive.

Age Concern NZ is a partner in the project and will help publicise the study among its members, and through aged care homes. Researchers are also working with kaumātua to reach Māori.

“We’re putting a lot of effort into trying to get those voices we seldom hear,” says Merryn.

There are three key phases to the study, with an over-arching goal of getting older people’s perspectives and experiences into the public domain.

“In the first phase, we’re interviewing older people who worked with us on a previous project because they were experiencing loneliness so we really want to see how lockdown has affected them.

“We’re also doing a media analysis, looking at the way the media has reported on older people. We hope that what we find out will be useful for them – and the government – for framing messages in the future. One message we’re hoping to get across is that it’s key first to speak to older people if they then want to speak about them.”

Merryn says something kept leaping out to her when reading about Covid-19 in the news. “The people who have the voices are the politicians and the service providers, but very few older people are actually foregrounded in stories.”

The final phase is a survey of service providers.

“We’re talking to groups like Age Concern NZ and other NGOs to see what they’ve been doing during this time, what they think the barriers have been and how they could be helped in the future. If there were to be a second wave, what do we need to know to be prepared and also for future pandemic situations? One of those aspects is around public health messaging. Are they spoken about in a way that engages with them?”

Merryn is also part of a separate project led by her Te Ārai and School of Nursing colleague Dr Jackie Robinson that focuses on the impact lockdown has had on rest-home residents.

“We want to find out what the impact has been on those residents, on their functional and mental well-being. Because they haven’t been able to leave the facility or have visitors who keep them socially stimulated and mentally active.”

Merryn says something interesting out of early discussions is how much older people do for their community.

“For example, we interviewed one of our kaumātua and her main concern on lockdown was how on earth was she going to be able to carry on with her mahi in this situation. But she’s incredibly resourceful, so she found ways to do her work remotely.

"That’s just completely contrary to the framing of ‘these poor older people; we must do everything we can to protect them’.”

- Denise Montgomery

To take part in the study see:


This feature first appeared in the June 2020 edition of UniNews