An Alarming Trend: The toll of COVID-19 on older adults

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

To keep updated on all of the OECD's work supporting the fight against COVID-19, visit our Digital Content Hub.

Tackling Coronavirus (COVID-19): Contributing to a global effort

The pandemic’s impact on the world has been staggering, but it’s older adults that are facing greater rates of fatality. During the launch of the Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Older Persons, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres stated the fatality rate for adults age 80 and older is five times the global average.

The sickeningly high death tolls for older adults during this global pandemic have shown how broken our health and social care systems are across the world. These systems must be addressed immediately.

More on the Forum Network: Planning Ahead, Planning Behind: In some ways we were better prepared for COVID-19 than expected by Michael Hodin, CEO, Global Coalition on Aging

More on the Forum Network: Planning Ahead, Planning Behind: In some ways we were better prepared for COVID-19 than expected by Michael Hodin, CEO, Global Coalition on Aging

But just as critical, we need to stop the persistent ageism that causes older people to be viewed as expendable. Ageist attitudes and practices are undermining society’s ability to protect all its citizens from this crisis. Left unchecked, they will also hamper collective growth and recovery after COVID-19.

Here are five recommendations aimed at reducing the death toll, improving physical and mental health and ensuring global prosperity.

Provide everyone with access to quality health care, regardless of age

Everyone deserves the best possible care. Criteria such as age or having a disability should not exclude anyone from treatment. Those entrusted with making care decisions should be guided by current science and the prognosis and clinical needs of individual patients. Policymakers should ensure that health care is never rationed, and this principle must apply through the entire trajectory of care, from check-ups to testing to treatment to recovery.

More needs to be done to protect the health and safety of people living and working in nursing homes, assisted living and other residential care facilities.

Access to quality care shouldn’t depend on where you live. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly half of coronavirus-related deaths in Europe have been in long-term care facilities. And more than 40,000 deaths have been reported in long-term care facilities in the United States. Unfortunately, the number is likely much higher since many states are not reporting the number of COVID-19 related deaths.

More needs to be done to protect the health and safety of people living and working in nursing homes, assisted living and other residential care facilities. More testing is needed to curb this outbreak and providers must have access to proper personal protective equipment. This is beginning to happen in Ontario, Canada, for example, which will start testing all residents and staff, including individuals who are asymptomatic, to better understand the breadth and depth of who has been infected. Facilities will also receive additional support and resources to address infection control and prevention, and to protect direct-care workers.

Mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on communities of colour

No one group of people should be disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Yet in the United States, communities of colour are being infected and dying at a much higher rate than the country’s total population. Unfortunately, this is linked to a history of disparities in access to health care and economic opportunity. The pandemic has exposed structural and systematic failures that need to be addressed.

Read the OECD policy brief on Protecting people and societies and more key policy responses

Read the OECD policy brief on Protecting people and societies and more key policy responses
Photo:Shutterstock/Gustavo Frazao

Communities of colour are more likely to experience higher rates of chronic conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity and other underlying conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19. They are more likely to have lost jobs or experienced a pay cut. It is imperative that we address these disparities in real-time with equitable solutions to ensure that everyone can live a healthier and longer life.

Address isolation and the need for mental health services

Social distancing should not mean isolation, loneliness, depression and stress. We know that social isolation increases the risk of early death and is all-too-common among older adults. Even before COVID-19, an AARP Foundation study found that 43 percent of Americans age 60 and older reported feelings of loneliness and isolation. Another AARP report found that social isolation costs the United States Medicare program almost USD 7 billion a year.

The dilemma for government officials is that physical distancing and self-quarantining can exacerbate feelings of isolation and loneliness. While individuals should do what they can to safely stay in touch with each other, it has become increasingly important for nations to ensure access to mental health services for all who need them to mitigate loneliness and despair.

Ending age discrimination in the workplace

Lost jobs and shrunken nest eggs are a grim combination, forcing growing numbers of adults over age 50 to look for work. In hard times, older workers are often pushed out first. Yet age discrimination can be a towering barrier that keeps qualified older workers from getting hired. Worse yet, the victims of age discrimination are often women and low-income groups that need jobs the most.

More on the Forum Network: The New Social Contract: Age-Friendly Employers by Mike Mansfield, Program Director, Aegon Center for Longevity and Retirement, Aegon

More on the Forum Network: The New Social Contract: Age-Friendly Employers by Mike Mansfield, Program Director, Aegon Center for Longevity and Retirement, Aegon

As nations begin to re-boot their economies, protecting workers from age bias can provide a competitive edge. Experienced workers are an under-used resource, offering skills and stability that strengthen their organisations. A recent AARP study found that age discrimination in 2018 cost the United States economy USD 850 billion, including USD 545 billion in lost wages and salaries. 

We will all need to work together to rebuild our economies and societies.  AARP is collaborating with the World Economic Forum, OECD and private sector to better understand how to support a multigenerational workforce – and gain insights into the benefits of age diversity on the corporate bottom line. We welcome real-world ideas, so please feel free to share them with us here. 

Ensuring financial security for all as they age

In the short run, unemployment benefits should be structured in a way that protects those who lose part-time, low-wage and contract jobs, work that is often sought by those of retirement age. But COVID-19 has exposed other financial vulnerabilities that call for long-term solutions.

Too many families lack emergency savings needed in a sudden crisis. In the United States, 51%of individuals over age 50 do not have “rainy day” funds set aside to cover necessities during the pandemic, according to AARP. Stronger support for saving will help people maintain a good quality of life as they age and help families survive the next financial disaster.  

The message for leaders, policymakers, and health systems is clear: addressing the needs of older adults is a key to global resilience and healing – and a better future for all.

Finally, more than ever, we need trusted information to promote safe behaviour that is tailored to older adults, which organisations like AARP and the WHO have been providing throughout the pandemic. In addition, AARP International recently released a new digital platform featuring global innovations and promising practices from around the world in response to COVID-19 to foster greater exchange of ideas across countries.

These five things would go a long way to lower death tolls; improve community health and families’ financial resilience; and help with economic recovery. The message for leaders, policymakers, and health systems is clear: addressing the needs of older adults is a key to global resilience and healing – and a better future for all.

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Tackling COVID-19 Health Intergenerational Solidarity

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Debra Whitman

Executive Vice President and Chief Public Policy Officer, AARP

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