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A Year in Review: How COVID Has Affected the Lives of Older Adults

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The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed all of our lives in immeasurable ways. If you are 65 and older, then the pandemic has had even more implications on your daily life. 

Now that the global pandemic continues on for more than a year, let’s take a look at the major ways that COVID-19 has affected the lives of older adults.

Death and Health Risk in Older Adults from COVID-19

As you likely know, COVID-19 is most dangerous if you are older. In fact, eight out of ten deaths from COVID-19 have occurred in those aged 65 or over, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Here are a few other health stats that demonstrate the impact of the virus on older adults:

  • Older adults also have a greater risk of severe disease caused by COVID-19. Severe disease includes hospitalization, intensive care, the need for a ventilator to breathe, or death.
  • Age creates a greater risk for a severe case of the virus. For instance, those in their 50s have a greater risk of severe illness than those in their 40s. Similarly, those in their 70s have a greater risk of severe illness compared to those in their 60s, the CDC reports.
  • COVID-19 is the leading cause of death among those over age 35, according to a report in the medical journal JAMA from December. For adults over age 45, there was a higher risk of dying from COVID-19 than drug overdoses, car accidents, respiratory diseases, and suicide.
  • For those who have had COVID-19 and survived, they still may feel the effects of the disease in the long term. Long COVID, as it’s commonly called, can cause brain fog, fatigue, heart problems, and other debilitating health problems after the virus is no longer infectious. It’s not clear how long the virus will cause these symptoms due to the newness of the coronavirus. Even without long COVID, those who were hospitalized for COVID often have a long journey to return to their previous physical health.

Other Health Concerns and the Impact of COVID-19

The impact of COVID-19 and its associated health risks aren’t the only reason that the health of older adults has become more vulnerable over the past year. Consider the other health concerns that have increased due to the pandemic:

  • Because most of us have had to stay home for extended periods of time, many people have been reluctant to attend to routine healthcare needs, such as cancer screenings, doctor checkups, eye exams, and dental appointments. Because of this, health experts fear a rise of cancer rates and other preventable health problems. Tip: If you have put off routine appointments, talk to your health providers about the risks and benefits of having these appointments. Although there may be some risk involved with going out, the benefits of preventing a more serious health problem may be worth the risk.
  • Malnutrition among older adults is a challenge. Even without the pandemic, up to one in two older adults is malnourished or at risk for it, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Older adults already are at a greater risk for malnutrition, due to lower appetites and less access to food. During the pandemic, family members or friends who may have helped to buy groceries in the past may have had to stay away. Not all older adults feel comfortable using grocery delivery services. If you’re an older adult with health issues, you may have avoided the grocery store over the past year. The end result? Less access to nutritious food. 
  • The effects of loneliness, social isolation, and depression (see below) take their toll on physical health.

Isolation and Loneliness Among Older Adults During the Pandemic

You’ve heard about it or perhaps experienced it yourself: The pandemic caused us all to shut our doors and avoid seeing loved ones in person. Although there are ways to see and speak with family and friends through platforms like Zoom and FaceTime or even with a simple phone call, those aren’t quite the same as getting a hug from a grandkid or spending quality time together. Plus, not all older adults feel comfortable with that technology. Some low-income older adults may have pay-per-minute cell phone plans, limiting the amount of time they can spend on the phone. The end result? Many seniors feel more lonely than ever.

There is now a “loneliness epidemic” among those aged 50 and older, according to an October report from the AARP and the United Health Foundation. The report found that two-thirds of older adults say they are experiencing social isolation.

In an AARP article, AARP Foundation president Lisa Marsh Ryerson called the isolation “a very real public health crisis.” She also said that loneliness and social isolation are as bad for your health as obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes daily.

Depression and Anxiety Among Older Adults During the Pandemic

Depression and anxiety have hit older adults hard during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, one in four adults are reporting anxiety or depression through the pandemic. In a poll done by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), 46% of those age 65 and older said that the pandemic and the economic downturn had a negative effect on their mental health. 

In an interesting twist, younger adults have experienced even higher rates of anxiety and depression, the poll found. However, many older adults may view depression as a normal sign of aging so they don’t consider it as something that requires attention, according to KFF. In communities of color or low-income communities, there may be a stigma about seeking help for mental health issues.

The negative toll on the mental health of older adults could have many causes:

  • Concern over the health effects of the coronavirus for themselves or loved ones.
  • Grief over loved ones who have died from the virus
  • Isolation due to the pandemic
  • Concern over other health effects associated with both isolation and depression, such as an increased risk for dementia

The Bottom Line

As sobering as the numbers are regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on older adults, the COVID-19 vaccine offers hope. More and more older adults are getting the vaccine, allowing them to emerge with some semblance of a normal life (still with precautions as the CDC advises). If you are an older adult struggling with any of the issues outlined here, including depression or considering suicide, reach out to a trusted family member, friend, or caregiver for help. Or, call:

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