Older Adults and the Impact of COVID-19
Since COVID-19 began rampaging across the globe in late 2019, it’s become all too clear that seniors are far more likely to experience dire outcomes should they be exposed to the pandemic virus.
But the increased risk of serious complications and death are not the only factors making life difficult for older adults in the time of coronavirus, many of whom already face challenges stemming from social isolation, chronic health conditions, and dementia-related disorders.
Why Coronavirus is so Dangerous for Older Adults
According to the World Health Organization, people over 60 make up more than 95% of the deaths attributed to COVID-19. Those 80 and over have accounted for more than half!
Nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have been particularly hard hit.
“While just 11 percent of the country’s cases have occurred in long-term care facilities,” The New York Times recently reported, “deaths related to COVID-19 in these facilities account for more than a third of the country’s pandemic fatalities.”
Long-term care homes also account for the majority of COVID-19 deaths in Belgium (53%), France (51.2%), Canada (62%), and Spain (60%).
Why are seniors so vulnerable to COVID-19?
For one thing, the immune system deteriorates with age, decreasing the body’s ability to fight off influenza and other common infections, let alone a novel pathogen like COVID-19. Seniors are also more likely to suffer from certain co-morbidities – diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory illness – that increase the risk of serious coronavirus complications and death.
Finally, many older adults rely on caregivers – whether family or professionals – to meet their daily medical and personal care needs. COVID-19 is most likely to be transmitted through close personal contact typical of the caregiving relationship. This risk is amplified by the fact that a significant portion of those who contract coronavirus will be asymptomatic.
Pandemic Impacts Go Well Beyond COVID-19
Even seniors who manage to avoid coronavirus could still suffer adverse health consequences due to the pandemic. The nationwide shutdown has already made it more difficult to see a doctor, and many older adults are hesitant to venture far from home out of fear of contracting the virus. Concerns about overburdening the health system have also caused people of all ages to delay care-seeking during the outbreak – even when it’s an emergency.
Unfortunately for seniors, the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic go far beyond concerns for their health and safety. Restrictions on movement and the need for social distancing have caused many older adults to experience an extreme degree of social isolation – especially when they lack access to technology platforms like Zoom or have only limited access to phone calls.
The elderly are also more vulnerable to the economic recession/depression that’s developing as a consequence of the pandemic. In fact, people ages 65 and older make up a significant percentage of the unemployed, while the stock market collapse and falling interest rates have caused many retirees to experience significant declines in income and net worth.
Even before the pandemic, financial instability, along with race and other socioeconomic factors, directly impacted access to healthcare resources and patient outcomes. Unfortunately, that hasn’t changed with COVID-19, as recent research suggests poorer communities have experienced much higher rates of mortality associated with the virus.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also presented a multitude of challenges for family caregivers, especially those who must choose between leaving an essential job (bus drivers, grocery clerks, healthcare workers, etc.) or risk transmitting the potentially deadly virus to their elderly loved one. Others have had to leave their jobs because a family member’s adult daycare closed or other care arrangements fell through because of the virus-related shutdowns.
Meanwhile, hospitals and nursing homes have imposed restrictions on visitors in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19, denying patients – including those who suffer from bouts of delirium or dementia – the comfort of their familiar family caregivers.
Supporting Older Adults During the Pandemic
Keeping seniors safe through social distancing is absolutely vital, but it’s also important to mitigate the effects of social isolation and work to support the older adults in our communities in this time of crisis.
While we must maintain physical separation, there’s nothing stopping anyone from making a phone call or sending an occasional card or letter to ensure our elderly family members, friends, and neighbors stay connected during the pandemic. You could even offer to drop off a home-cooked meal, pick up groceries, or run other essential errands they should avoid while the virus remains a threat.
If you’re looking to do more, try volunteering with local groups that provide resources, support and companionship to vulnerable community members. You might also consider donating blood or making a financial contribution to your local food pantry.
These ideas are really just a start – get together with friends and family and formulate you own action plan. By working together, we can all make sure the older adults in our lives – and in our communities – remain safe and connected for the duration of the pandemic.